Carrie meets Marathon Man

by Michelle Citron

from Jump Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 10-12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

John Schlesinger’s MARATHON MAN is a slick Hollywood thriller, another in the long line of male rite of passage films in the tradition of THE GRADUATE, STRAWDOGS, and THE GODFATHER. As such, it is boring and trite. CARRIE is Hollywood’s latest psychic horror film. It follows in the tradition of THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN, and PSYCHIC KILLER. As such, it is mildly interesting in that Brian de Palma, the director, has a good visual eye. CARRIE is also a female rite of passage film, and this is very unusual and also very interesting. Taken together. MARATHON MAN and CARRIE offer two cultural artifacts that clearly spell out what it means to grow up male and female in U.S. culture.

MARATHON MAN concerns Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman), a brilliant graduate student in history. Emotionally immature and experientially naive, he is trying desperately to exorcise the demons of his past: his father, a brilliant historian, who committed suicide amidst the pressures of the McCarthy witch hunts and an older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), who is suave, sophisticated and successful—all the things that Babe is not. Unknown to Babe, Doc is a CIA-type agent whose death plunges Babe into a web of international intrigue involving Szell (Laurence Olivier), arch-evil Nazi dentist war criminal.

Szell murders Doc and then goes after Babe for information, which Babe doesn't even possess, with delicate dental torture perfected in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. After torture, escape, killings, and a final confrontation with Szell himself, Babe changes from an innocent child to a man, the world’s evils and childhood devils purged by the process.

Carrie is also innocent and naive, a shy high school student who one day gets her period in the gym shower room. Since her neurotic oppressive mother never told her about menstruation, she panics at the sight of blood flowing down between her legs. The women in her class, who dislike her anyway, viciously make fun of her, bombarding her with tampax and ridicule. After the young women are punished by Miss Collins (Betty Buckles), the kind gym teacher, they plot revenge on Carrie. They get her invited to the Senior prom, have her crowned Prom Queen, and then as she stands in all her radiant glory before the senior class—accepted by them for the first time—they dump a huge bucket of pig’s blood on her. But Carrie possesses telekinetic powers, and at the height of her humiliation, she unleashes this power in a horrifying revenge destroying students, teachers, Miss Collins, her mother and even herself.

These two films are clearly about rites of passage. At first Babe and Carrie are childish in comparison to other characters in the films and to themselves at the end of the films. Although Babe is a 25 year old grad student at Columbia University, he is a ‘babe’ in the ways of the world. Some of his child-like traits are cute. For example, when he finally gets a date with mysterious, beautiful Elsa (Marthe Keller) after a pursuit in which his incompetence with women is apparent, he walks down the hall clicking his heels, jumping for joy. Later he defiantly and playfully gargles with wine to annoy the more sophisticated Doc. When confronted with a difficult situation, he often slips into memories of his unresolved past or fantasies of the great marathon runner Ababa Bikila. He dreams of being a hero.

On the other hand, Babe is powerless. He lacks information—he doesn't know what Doc really does. He is easily intimidated: by his history seminar professor when being questioned about his dissertation, by Janeway, Szell’s double crossing associate and lover, during interrogation after Doc’s death. He is naively trusting to a dangerous extent, and thus he is duped by everyone as seen in both Janeway’s and Elsa’s manipulation of him. But by the end of the film all of these traits have been replaced by more “adult” ones. Through the obligatory acts of violence of a rite of passage, Babe learns to live in a real worlds self-assured and trusting no one but himself. (1)

Carrie too is naive, insecure, and powerless at first. She is completely uninformed about sex and normal bodily functions. She looks like a child with her long, straight hair, loose fitting, baby blue jumper, and short sleeved white blouse. She deals with the taunts of her peers by cowering in the corner of the shower like a wounded animal. When approached by Tom for a date, she looks terrified and runs away. And even though she suspects that the class is making a fool of her, she does not trust her instincts.

Getting her period is a very tangible passage from childhood to womanhood. Afterwards, we see subtle and continuous changes that suggest Carrie is becoming an adult. She begins to stand up to her mother, going to the prom against the mother’s wishes, She becomes more womanly in appearance, buying lipstick, curling her hair, and wearing a clinging satin gown to the prom. With her period also comes her power (the breaking of the light bulb in the shower), which increases in strength as the film unfolds until it reaches its apex when she brings the heavens crashing down upon her house.


The parent/ child relationship in the two films (mother/ daughter, father/ son) is very different and very telling. Carrie White’s relationship to her mother (Piper Laurie) is seen as totally oppressive. Margaret White is a repressed, fanatical Christian. With her wild hair, her crumbling old house, and her fundamentalist attitudes towards religion and life, she is out of sync with the culture she and Carrie live in: upper middle class United States symbolized by immaculately dressed and coiffured suburban women, split level houses, and spoiled, oversexed children. Going from suburban house to suburban house preaching the gospel to bored housewives, she is more than just old fashioned, she is evil. Instead of explaining menstruation and sex to Carrie, Mrs. White forces her daughter to read religious passages: “The sins of women,” “Eve was weak and God visited her with a curse till the ends of her days.” She then drags Carrie, kicking and screaming, into a broom closet fitted out as a small shrine in which Carrie must stay until she has adequately prayed for forgiveness. Mrs. White’s actions are seen as an incredible psychological abuse of her child who does not know how to fight back.

Margaret White has stunted her daughter’s growth, which results in the destructive unleashing of Carrie’s powers. If she had told Carrie about menstruation, the shower incident and all subsequent actions would not have occurred. She cares much more about the “sin” than she does about her daughter’s happiness. When Carrie goes crying to her for comfort after the prom, Margaret accuses her of being a pawn of the devil and stabs her. This situation contrasts sharply with that of Sue, a peer of Carrie’s, who at the end of the film screams out in pain from a nightmare and is held and comforted by her mother. We are led to conclude that Margaret White is the evil ultimately responsible for the destruction which occurs.

As a parent, Professor Levy stunted Babe’s growth. Babe at 25 is still haunted by the past, unable to transcend the shadow of his father, a brilliant, respected scholar. Yet Professor Levy was not evil. In a flashback, he is seen in a loving interaction with the young Babe. Even Doc’s remarks that “the old man was a drunk,” serve only to give him qualities of human weakness. We can readily imagine someone cracking under the strain of the McCarthy witch hunts. Many did. While the father’s alcoholism and suicide are not laudable, neither are they totally unsympathetic. He is seen as a positive force (or at least a surmountable obstacle) in Babe’s life because Babe is able to throw away his past at the end of the film and walk away a man. Margaret White is a negative force, causing Carrie to destroy herself and everyone else.

We only see Babe’s father in flashback. By having the father’s image mediated through the eyes of other characters (Babe, Doc, Professor Biesenthal), his traits are seen more as reflections of the reminiscing characters than of the man himself. In contrast, Margaret White is shown objectively, unmediated by others. Her weaknesses are hers alone, ones which we, the audience, readily see for ourselves—a device which reinforces the evilness of her character.


Both Babe and Carrie have sibling/mentors—Babe had Doc; Carrie has the gym teacher—who care for their younger counterparts. However both mentors are limited. Doc underestimates Babe and never tells him his true profession or why he distrusts Elsa. Thus Babe has no reason to trust Doc’s actions; he doesn't understand them. Miss Collins’ shortsighted judgment underestimates the students’ strong reaction to their punishment, and she mistrusts Sue’s attempt to stop the blood prank. The teacher’s motives are good but she is ineffective.

Doc and Miss Collins serve the same function only superficially. Doc’s limitations lead only to his own death, which functions as the catalyst for Babe’s growth. Miss Collins’ limitations lead to massive destruction. And Miss Collins’ death shows us that Carrie really is vicious in her revenge.


The definition of power differs radically for the male and female protagonists in the two films. The films’ general structures are the same; both Carrie and Babe start off powerless and then grow into adulthood and power. What differs is the power’s source, its use, and treatment within the filets.

Carrie’s power comes from without: it is mystical and supernatural. Telekinesis is something we do not understand, so Carrie’s power seems awesome and overwhelming. Thus it is much easier to identify with the victims of this esoteric power than it is to identify with its owner. Its cinematic manifestation, filmed in split screen with red filters, increases our alienation. In one sense Carrie never gains power; rather, she is an unwilling victim of it. Unlike Babe, she cannot be credited with the power she possesses. She is just its vessel.

As a mysterious power, it also reinforces the myth of the fearful power of women (especially because the power is linked to menstruation and sexuality). The “teeth in the cunt!” The all consuming vagina!

Babe’s power is entirely different. He is placed in a world where people have power, the sources of which are readily understandable: money (diamonds), government (the CIA, Nazi Germany), guns, physical strength, intellectual knowledge. It is the type of power, the film tells us, a powerless male can attain if he is moral and strong.

Babe is the source of his own power; it is very human and always there. As Szell says, “Your brother was incredibly strong, sometimes strength is inherited.” Babe has only to release it by being true to himself. Professor Biesenthal told him, “You can't fill his (your father’s) footsteps. I'm sorry to tell you. You may end up leaving larger tracks, anything’s possible, but they will be your own, not your father’s.” Babe’s tracks do end up being larger, for he displays the courage his father lacked.

Babe’s powerlessness is something we can identify with, and so his attainment of power at the end of the film perpetuates the myth that we too, as individuals, can become powerful. The film’s central metaphor of the marathon is appropriate because the marathon is a very individualistic, private sport, and Babe’s heroism is very individualistic. The recurring marathon sequence we see in the film is of Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian cop who won the marathon in the Japanese Olympics running barefoot against the favored runners from Russia and Germany, countries with big athletic machines. Babe also wins against large forces. He single-handedly kills four men and rescues himself despite many traps and false friends. He embodies the U.S. myth of everyman as lone hero. If Babe can do it, so can we.

This myth of individualist fulfillment is further reinforced by a contrast made throughout the film between people from the United States as symbolized by Babe, and Europeans, as symbolized by the more continental Doc and Szell. Szell’s first view of the United States is the result of a baggage strike at the airport. Luggage is strewn all over the ground and the passengers are poking around for their belongings. In the center of the frame are Mr. and Mrs. America coming home from their South American vacation with straw hats, bright shirts and souvenirs. They are loud and frivolous, especially juxtaposed to Szell and what he represents. Szell sneers about the United Stateds, “Land of plenty. Always so confident God was on their side. Now I think they're not so sure.” Ultimately, of course. God IS on our side for Babe is victorious over Szell. The airport is chaotic, just like Babe’s messy, chaotic room, which Doc calls an “armpit of a place.” The dirty sheets and dirty glasses contrast strongly with the impeccable style of Doc’s room. When they go to a very classy, continental restaurant for lunch, Doc talks of truffles and wine, suggesting Babe would probably prefer to eat at MacDonalds, the ultimate symbol of the United States.

Babe’s power is very male, hooked to government, politics, WWII, and money. And its maleness is symbolized by his father’s gun. At first Babe keeps it wrapped in a white towel, hidden in a desk drawer, a symbol of his father’s and his own weak manhood. In his showdown with Janeway and Elsa after his torture by Szell, Babe arrogantly cocks the gun and holds it straight out at arms length like a rigid phallus. At the end of the film, when he is safe and secure in his proven manhood, he is able to throw the gun away.

The women in MARATHON MAN reflect this point of view of male power. Elsa is the only siqnificant woman in the film. The treacherous, deceiving woman, she first facilitates Babe’s mugging and later leads him into a trap.


Finally we must ask: what does it mean to be a man or a woman in this culture? For Babe, a man is defined as someone who is both moral (capable of making the correct choices) and courageous (being both worldly intelligent and being able to act). Throughout MARATHON MAN Babe is surrounded by male models, each of whom presents a piece of the male definition, none of whom are complete themselves. Babe’s father is moral but not courageous, brilliant but unable to survive. DoC is courageous but not moral. He is strong, as even Szell admits, bare handedly fighting off his murderous assailant early in the film. He is also cunning, able to sense the evil in Elsa. But he is not moral.

Szell also has a strong moral code, but one which is evil. Babe’s final test is his confrontation with Szell in the pump house. He does not sell out, refusing Szell’s bribe of diamonds. Neither is he able to kill Szell (despite his evilness) in cold blood. Only when provoked by Szell, “You're too weak. Your father was weak in his way, your brother in his. And you're weak too. You're all so predictable,” does Babe have the motivation to kill. His new-found manhood has been challenged and he must prove himself by killing Szell. When Szell dies, Babe is able to leave the pump house, throw away his father’s gun, the symbol of his unresolved manhood, and turn around and walk in the direction he has always run from.

For Carrie, to become a woman is to unleash evil, not destroy it. Prior to the menstrual scene we see a long sequence in which Carrie washes herself in the shower. Seen through diffusion filters and in slow motion, Carrie is a luscious, sensual creature, innocently soaping her breasts, rubbing between her legs, turning up her face to catch the water flowing from the phallic shower head. The shots linger over her body in voyeuristic close ups. Suddenly there is blood. Carrie has just entered into the world of the adult woman.

Carrie’s world also exhibits various female roles. Her mother is a psychotic, evil woman who cannot deal with her own or her daughter’s sexuality. Susie’s mother is a bored housewife leading an empty life watching the soaps and drinking scotch. Miss Collins is kindhearted (well almost, she does admit to identifying with the hatred the women in the gym class feel towards Carrie for acting so foolish about her period) but not very wise. Carrie’s female peers are selfish nymphs, sexually teasing young men into helping with a particularly vicious prank. There is one genuinely nice woman in the film, Sue, who tries to help Carrie. But we, like Miss Collins, are duped into not trusting her actions until it is too late.

It is all summed up with blood. Blood is very central to the rites of passage for both characters. For Carrie, it is the horrifying, unexplained menstrual blood dripping down between her legs in the shower as if from an open wound. The pig’s blood of humiliation. The oppressive blood of the Christian martyrs dripping out of the wounds of the St. Sebastian statue which adorns her closet sanctuary.

For Babe, blood is Doc’s courage in overcoming his deadly assailant barehanded and bleeding. And the regrettable but necessary deaths of Doc and his father out of which Babe’s manhood rises. And Babe’s strength of purpose is proven when he kills real people and not just paper targets.

The moral is clear. To be a man is to become moral and courageous, to rise up victorious out of the evil of the world. To be a woman is to become that evil: uncontrolled and destructive. Throughout MARATHON MAN, Szell keeps asking Babe, “Is it safe, is it safe?” No, women, it is not safe.


1. See M. Claire Kolbenschlag’s “Film and The American Experience” for an elaboration of the “Regeneration-through-violence” myth. Jump Cut, No. 6 (March-April, 1975)