Marathon Man is a 1976 thriller film directed by John Schlesinger and written by William Goldman, an adaptation of his 1974 novel. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and costars Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane, and Marthe Keller.
Olivier was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the antagonist, Dr. Christian Szell, who was ranked #34 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list. The line “Is it safe?” ranked #70 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes. The film was a critical and commercial success, though a number of changes from Goldman’s original intentions–the removal of scenes deemed excessively violent, and how Szell dies at the end of the film–brought the film down a few notches…in Goldman’s own assessment, too.
Still, I consider the story worth analyzing because of its depiction of the relationship between German Naziism (as personified by Szell and his older brother) and American capitalism (as personified by Szell’s American associates and couriers)–that is, the love/hate relationship between the US and fascism.
Thomas Babington “Babe” Levy (Hoffman) is a history PhD student in New York writing a dissertation on tyranny in American politics. He’s named after Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British Whig historian deemed progressive by 19th century standards, but who by today’s standards would be deemed insufferably elitist. Macaulay was known for writing a dramatized version of history, celebrating those he agreed with and vilifying those he disagreed with; similarly, Professor Biesenthal (played by Fritz Weaver) warns Babe not to get too emotional when researching the McCarthyism that destroyed his father. His doctoral thesis “mustn’t be turned into a hysterical crusade.”
Marx deemed Macaulay a “systematic falsifier of history.” By deeming his father innocent of the accusation of communist sympathies–rather than doing the brave thing and saying it shouldn’t matter whether his father was or wasn’t a ‘commie’ (i.e., there’s nothing to be ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ of), Babe is showing his reactionary, liberal tendencies (in a way, rather like those of Macaulay). This babyish political naïveté of Babe’s is something he’ll have to outgrow if he’s going to confront the fascists in his midst.
Apart from his historical/political leanings, Babe is also an aspiring marathon runner, hence the story’s name, and hence his nickname, after Babe Ruth, who we can visualize running past the three bases to home plate after hitting his many home runs. How should we interpret the meaning of Babe’s running? Firstly, he is accepting his place in the competitive world of capitalism, running with the others in an attempt to win the (rat) race, or World Series, of life. Second, as his successful running away from his captors, those working for Szell, indicates, Babe’s running represents his lifelong attempt to run away from his problems, instead of confronting them, as he finally does at the end.
Babe’s older brother is Henry David Levy (Scheider), known as “Hank,” or as “Doc” by Babe, or by his Division code name, “Scylla.” He is named after Henry David Thoreau, for reasons that, frankly, don’t make any sense to me at all, given Doc’s total conformity to the social and political establishment, the diametric opposite of Thoreau’s proto-environmentalist, anti-government stances. (Was the Levy brothers’ father hoping for Doc to have such a personality, or was this naming irony on Goldman’s part? Anybody who has read the novel, please inform me in the comments; I’ll be extremely grateful, and I’ll make the appropriate changes to this analysis then.)
Doc’s other name, Scylla, is more explicable. As a spy secretly working for the American government, and as a courier for Szell’s diamonds (in exchange for Szell’s betraying of his fellow Nazis), Doc is, symbolically speaking, vying for a Scylla and Charybdis kind of lesser evil status, rather like the US vis-à-vis Naziism. Though he’s a Jew (and a closeted gay), Doc has an American-style conservatism and violent manner (cut out of the film) that shows him to have a much more flawed character than meets the eye, an unpleasantness almost comparable to that of Szell.
Christian Szell’s older brother, Klaus, has been watching over Szell’s diamonds (which he’d extorted from prisoners in Auschwitz) in a New York bank while Szell hides away in Uruguay (Paraguay in the novel). If Szell needs money, Klaus takes out some diamonds and has these converted into cash. But one unlucky day, Klaus gets mixed up in a road rage incident that gets him and the other driver killed.
The other driver is a hot-tempered, middle-aged Jew, and Klaus is as much a Nazi sympathizer as Christian is. The mutual hate that both drivers feel, knowing each other’s ethnicity (Klaus: “You are a Jude!…[in German>>] Lick my arse!”//The Jewish driver: “You antisemitic bastard, you!”), causes their road rage to spiral out of control, leading to them crashing into an oil truck, killing both of them.
It’s easy to see the destructiveness of racial hatred in this scene, and to focus on the evil of antisemitism. But to get at the root of fascism, we have to look at its economic foundations. Szell, having lost his brother in the accident, no longer has anyone he can trust to watch over his diamonds, so he must come out of hiding and (or so he believes) kill the couriers before they have a chance to rob him of his diamonds.
This fear of losing one’s wealth is what drives the violence of fascism. When communist revolutions shook up Europe in the late 1910s, the beginning of the 1920s, and in the mid-1930s, regardless of whether they succeeded or failed, the capitalist class was scared, and the fascism of Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, et al was used either to beat down the working class or to lead them astray, making them think that foreigners were their enemy, rather than the rich. Szell’s paranoia and violence are symbolic of this reactionary use of fascism; note how, early in the film, there are numerous references to strikes and environmental protests.
Recall what Henry A. Wallace had to say about fascism: “A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.” Here’s another quote: “If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States.” And yet another: “Still another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion.” Note Wallace’s recurring theme of the fascist’s lust for money.
While the racism, xenophobia, and national chauvinism of fascism are problems not to be trivialized, fascists at their core are capitalists, and their function is ultimately to preserve and protect the class structure of society. This is why we see Szell’s constant preoccupation with his diamonds. Though he’s surely no Jew-lover, we never hear him utter an antisemitic slur against Doc or Babe.
We mustn’t let ourselves be confused whenever people, conservatives such as Jonah Goldberg in particular, claim that men like Mussolini or Hitler were a ‘different kind’ of leftist. To say that the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was a socialist one is like saying the Democratic Party is democratic. The names of the parties mean nothing if their actions don’t replicate them. To reassure his big business donors, Hitler purged the Nazi party of all left-leaning members (Röhm, the Strassers, etc.) as soon as he came to power.
The point is that we don’t solve the problem of Nazi sympathizers by merely calling out people who make racist comments on social media, etc. We must get to the bottom of the fascist problem by dealing with its roots in class conflict. Hitler’s dream of lebensraum was inspired by the American takeover of land from the aboriginals. Imperialism in its modern form grew out of capitalism, a reaction to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Markets must expand to other countries to keep the profits flowing.
Similarly, Szell must leave South America and go to the Jewish-dominated diamond district of New York to retrieve the diamonds he stole from Jews in Auschwitz. He is the personification of an imperialist going into another country to plunder it, provoking the ire of those who live there.
Szell’s original hiding away in Uruguay/Paraguay, him a wealthy bourgeois with South American servants, reminds us of Dr. Josef Mengele (Todesengel, “Angel of Death”), of whom Szell (der weiße Engel, “the White Angel”) is the protégé and his double for the purposes of this story. Recall that Mengele–played by Gregory Peck–is the antagonist in The Boys From Brazil, in which Olivier also starred, playing a Jewish Nazi-hunter. Both of these films share as subject matter the fear of a resurgence of fascism.
Indeed, Marathon Man can be seen as a kind of allegory of the revival of fascism, in that Szell’s paranoia about being robbed of his diamonds (like Nazi paranoia of ‘Jewish world domination’) symbolizes the ruling class’s fear of losing their wealth and power from socialist revolution, as symbolized by the leftist references to such strikes as one of bakery workers and one of airport baggage handlers, as well as anti-pollution protests in Paris during Doc’s visit there.
Christian Szell–whose…Christian…name distinguishes him as a Gentile bourgeois from such Jewish bourgeois as Doc and all the New York diamond-dealers whose appraisals of Szell’s diamonds he needs, and whose surname (apart from its having been inspired by, oddly, George Szell) can be seen as a pun on sell, that is, to sell his diamonds for cash–must infiltrate another country, like an imperialist, and do violence against anyone who stands in his way, like a Nazi.
Szell’s American counterparts, Doc (or Scylla, recall) and Peter “Janey” Janeway (Devane), represent the Nazis’ American imperialist frienemies. They have to do business with Szell, for the sake of–in my allegory–maintaining the capitalist status quo, but Scylla, as a gay Jew, and Janey as his closet gay lover, certainly don’t like doing business with him.
The gay relationship between Scylla and Janey is only slightly hinted at in the film, in a scene in Scylla’s Paris hotel room, when he phones Janey, tells him he misses him, and wants him to “get [his] ass over [t]here.” Janey has worries about “appearances” (i.e., two men sharing a hotel room), but Scylla doesn’t care if their being together looks indiscreet. In the BBC radio drama (just after 38:00), Janey tells Babe there’s nothing he can say about Doc that won’t shock him, including his homosexuality (which would surely shock Babe to know). Goldman’s novel is even more open about Scylla’s and Janey’s gay relationship.
Now, these two men may be gay, but they’re also very much part of the conservative American political establishment. Doc is unsympathetic to Babe’s research on their father, a liberal who committed suicide because McCarthyist smears destroyed his reputation. Doc, as Scylla, may despise Szell, but he still chooses to work as a courier for him. Janey is a double agent pretending to oppose Szell by temporarily rescuing Babe from the dentist torture, but he wants the diamonds, too, and he gives Babe back to Szell when he realizes he can’t get any information from him.
What we see in these scenes between Szell, Scylla, and Janey is an allegorizing of the two-faced relationship that the US has always had with fascists. On the surface, the US appears to be opposed to Nazis (as we see dramatized in films like Saving Private Ryan), but secretly…or, not-so-secretly…American businessmen worked with Nazis, then after WWII, ex-Nazis were given jobs in the US government.
A thin veneer of liberalism and progressivism (as personified in Doc and Janey, in their gay relationship) hides American fascist sympathies. Recall how New Dealer FDR put Japanese Americans in internment camps. And during the 1950s, when there were higher taxes on the rich (high enough, in fact, to preclude the very existence of the kind of super-rich we see today), strong unions, and the welfare state, McCarthy’s witch hunt for communists and communist sympathizers was in full swing.
This last issue is of great concern to Babe, since it destroyed his and Doc’s father. Their father was a left-leaning liberal, left-leaning enough to make him want to ‘disown’ Doc, in Babe’s estimation, had their father lived long enough to see Doc become what Babe is led into believing is a successful oil businessman…and had their father known Doc is Scylla, a US government spy, he’d have disowned Doc all the more.
Still, this left-leaning doesn’t lean anywhere near Marxism-Leninism, which is what is truly threatening to American capitalism, the danger of a theft of the diamonds, so to speak, of the bourgeoisie. All the same, McCarthyism had that Szell-like paranoia of anyone even remotely connected to communist ideology; hence, such people, like the Levy brothers’ father, were destroyed.
This overwrought paranoia is emblematic of what links the American right with fascism. To those on the far right, anyone even a few millimetres to their left is by that fact alone a communist. Members of the Democratic Party are communists, apparently, even people like the Clintons, Obama, and Biden, who either enacted or endorsed very right-wing legislation. I know an American supporter of Trump who thinks this of the Democrats, and who holds the delusion that Justin Trudeau and hippies are communists. These far right-wing types actually reach that level of paranoid absurdity.
Similarly, Szell doesn’t trust any of his couriers with his diamonds, hence he has Chen, an Asian assassin, make several attempts on Scylla’s life. Scylla is plenty conservative as noted above, despite his closeted homosexuality; in fact, Doc’s code name is practically a pun on Szell. Still, none of this is good enough for the ex-Nazi dentist, so he kills Scylla with the blade hidden in his sleeve…just as Nazi Germany would eventually fight the US, the very country that inspired their imperialist lebensraum, in WWII.
Babe is smitten with a “Swiss” woman named Elsa Opel (Keller), though she is actually working with the same people associated with Szell. Small wonder Doc is quickly able to figure out that she is a phoney during lunch with her and Babe in a fancy restaurant. The two lovers have been mugged in Central Park by two men hired by Szell, the same two men who later abduct Babe in his apartment so Szell can do his sadistic dentistry on him. The two men’s German names are Erhardt (played by Marc Lawrence) and Karl (played by Richard Bright, who would have been easily remembered by mid-70s moviegoers as Al Neri in the two Godfather movies released just a few years before Marathon Man, thus making the link between Nazi Germany and mafia-like America all the surer).
So, Szell’s paranoia about having his diamonds stolen leads to his violence against his couriers, especially Scylla, then to Elsa and Babe…just as the capitalist class’s fear of losing their financial power led to the rise of fascism and its inherently violent nature. There is violence against Jews (in the film and in history, of course), let there be no trivializing of that fact; but at its core, the scourge of fascism is financial in nature.
So after Karl and Erhardt abduct Babe and tie him to a chair for Szell, we see an allegory of how fascist violence is provoked by a fear of the capitalist class losing its money. Though Babe is a Jew, and one would imagine ex-Nazi Szell hurling one antisemitic slur after another at him, instead, his one concern remains simply, “Is it safe?”
He won’t tell Babe what the “it” specifically refers to, so Babe has no way of being able to answer the question. Of course, what Szell means is to say, ‘Is it safe for me to go to the bank and retrieve my diamonds?’ Are his diamonds safe, or will he be robbed of them and killed? That this is a mystery to Babe is allegorical of how the common man is ignorant of the machinations of the ruling class.
Babe is terrorized and tortured by Szell and his tools of dentistry, just as the victims of fascism are terrorized and tortured; and just as Babe has no idea what Szell wants, those victimized by fascism usually don’t know what their far right-wing agenda is fuelled by. The common people assume that that agenda is limited to racial hatred, xenophobia, and extreme nationalism, when these three evils are just by-products of the agenda, which is to divert the working class from revolutionary intent, and to use violence to suppress socialist revolution during a time of capitalist crisis…to ensure that capitalism is safe.
Now, Babe is generally a rather weak, ineffectual man…a true Babe, hence Doc’s many taunts of him. The brothers’ reaction to the trauma of their father’s suicide has been to go in opposing directions, Doc a conservative, Babe a liberal. Doc’s trauma response is fight; Babe’s is flight. Babe screams for help like a damsel in distress when Karl and Erhardt break into his apartment. Symbolic of this weakness is a cavity he’s had throughout the story. Szell attacks the cavity with his dental tools, getting screams out of Babe. Then Szell finds a healthy tooth, honing in on a nerve, the pulp, the contacting of which is even more agonizing for Babe.
I have argued in other film analyses that the loss, or mutilation, of teeth (be they literal teeth or symbolic ones) is symbolic castration, in the Lacanian sense that any bodily mutilation represents a castration-like lack that gives rise to desire. The cutting-away at Babe’s healthy tooth is a trauma that, combined with those of the mugging and the witnessing of his brother’s bloody death, will push him over the edge and transform him from a meek man to a strong, revengeful man. His desire will be to have Szell recognize him and the hurt he’s caused, then to receive a return of that hurt.
After the mugging, Babe has admitted to a desire to use his pistol (which had been his father’s, used in his suicide) to shoot the muggers. Now he’ll want to use it all the more.
He manages to get away from his captors (when Szell finally acknowledges that Babe really doesn’t know anything about the diamonds), and he uses his running skills to evade them even while chasing him in a car. When he finally gets his hands on that gun from his apartment, that phallic gun, he finds his strength. Fear has been replaced with rage, just like that of the Jewish road rager at the beginning of the film…though Babe isn’t going to be rash and impulsive with his revenge on Nazis.
Elsa takes Babe to the house of Szell’s brother Klaus, and by now Babe is on to her. A final confrontation with her, Karl, Erhardt, and Janey ensues after finding out where Szell is going to be (his New York bank), and everyone except Babe is killed. Now Babe can go after Szell.
Szell has already been feeling the effects of his bad karma on the streets of the diamond district of New York. In spite of his having shaved himself to imitate male pattern baldness, so he wouldn’t be recognized by his weiße Engel mane of snowy hair, two middle-aged Jewish Holocaust survivors know who he is.
Pauline Kael called Marathon Man a “Jewish revenge fantasy,” but I’d like to extend that idea to a film about karmic retribution on fascists in general, in which Jews can be seen as a metonym for the working class. What we must remember is that while the Nazis murdered six million Jews, they also murdered five million non-Jews, including leftists, who represent the working class, and who were the first to be put in concentration camps. Jews and communists were the two main scapegoats on whom Nazis blamed the problems of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, Hitler conceived of communism as a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.
So the two middle-aged Jews who recognize Szell, and later, Babe getting his revenge on Szell, can be seen to represent a leftist retaliation against fascism. After all, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, and while the Wehrmacht was succeeding at first at doing violence against the Soviets (just as Szell has terrorized Babe with his dental instruments), eventually the Red Army turned things around and, surrounding the Nazis in Russian territory as Szell is surrounded in the Jewish diamond district, the Nazis retreated like Szell. Finally, when all was lost, Hitler killed himself, as Szell stabs himself with the blade in his sleeve.
Now, at this point, we must discuss the difference between the ending of the film and that of the novel, the latter of which I consider much better. The BBC radio drama (link above) dramatizes the novel’s ending, and the Goodreads quotes of the novel (again, link above) give lengthy sections of Babe’s lecturing words as he fills Szell with bullets.
The film’s ending–in which Babe doesn’t kill Szell, but merely points his gun at him, tells him to swallow his diamonds, and throws the case of them into the water of a water-treatment facility, making Szell race down stairs after the case, fall, and stab himself with his sleeve-blade–comes across as liberal soft-heartedness. Punish fascists, have them destroy themselves, but dear God, for the sake of humanity, don’t kill the poor little Nazis.
Say whatever you want about the morality of Babe shooting Szell in cold blood; he has every motive in the world not only to settle the score for all the torture he’s suffered from Szell, but also to avenge his brother’s murder. Similarly, we leftists have every motive in the world to meet fascist violence with violence of our own.
Babe once “was a scholar and a marathon man, but that fella’s gone now.” Recall how I said above that Babe’s marathon running is symbolic of his running away from his problems. He’s acknowledged, after the mugging, that Doc would say Babe’s never confronts anything. Well, “that fella’s gone now”: Babe doesn’t run away anymore. He faces his problems now. He fights back.
Babe says, “if you don’t learn the mistakes of the past, you’ll be doomed to repeat them.” We leftists must learn from the mistakes of the past, too. We can’t afford to be soft on fascists, because they’ll never show us that courtesy if they rise to power again…and recently, there have been many examples of resurgences of fascism, in their traditional, national chauvinist forms, and in other authoritarian forms.
Babe says to Szell, “we’d have a nice peaceful place here if all you warmakers knew you better not start something because if you lost, agony was just around the bed.” We won’t have peace in the world by strumming guitars, smoking pot, and naïvely wishing for an end to war. Warmongers will be stopped only through revolutionary action: power must be seized by force; the imperialist bourgeoisie must be violently overthrown, and this is what Babe’s bullet-ridden revenge on Szell represents.
We, the proletariat, cannot solve our problems by running away from them. We must arm ourselves and fight back; for if we don’t, the far greater, gun-laden violence will continue in the forms of war and police shootings, income inequality will continue, our civil rights will continue to erode, and our ability to live on this earth will be gone forever.
Only when the Szells of the world are removed, will it be safe.