Existential Criminality in Film
The Price to Pay for Being Oneself
While there have been fine films that explore aspects of the existential in cinema without relying on the illegal, there are numerous others that see in the existential the criminal, the notion that being for oneself in the world often manifests itself as being opposed to that world so fundamentally the lives of others are insignificant next to one's own. In what we will call the malign form, the figures are usually criminal (Le Samourai, Point Blank, The Driver, Heat and The American) or find themselves existing on the fringes of criminality, while in benign existentialism (The Passenger, La Collectioneuse, Five Easy Pieces, Two Lovers, The Hidden Life, Kings of the Road) the characters are usually making difficult choices or are in crisis, but this needn't usually result in the harming of others. Occasionally works exist in a liminal place between the benign and malign forms like The Gambler (which we will provisionally include here) and Taxi Driver, where characters become criminally involved in the course of the story but don't suggest criminality prior to it.
Why the frequent cinematic link between the existential and the criminal? Perhaps it rests on Heidegger's fundamental claim for Dasein as being for itself, as opposed to Mitsein, which is being for others. As Heidegger says, "...in concernful solicitude the Other is proximally disclosed. But because solicitude dwells proximally and for the most part in the deficient or at least the Indifferent modes (in the indifference of passing one another by), the kind of knowing oneself, which is essential and closest, demands that one becomes acquainted with oneself." (Being and Time) Various thinkers including Levinas, Buber and Nancy have been troubled by such a claim or have reconfigured it. Emmanuel Levinas says, "I do not have sympathy for solitude. There is something good, something relatively good in solitude. It is perhaps better than the dispersion in the anonymity of insignificant relations but, in principle, solitude is a lack." (Is It Righteous to Be) Jean-Luc Nancy reckons, "...in revealing itself as what is at stake in the meaning of Being, Dasein has already revealed itself as being-with and reveals itself as such before any other explication." (Being Singular Plural) While we don't want to get too lost in the intricacies of philosophy, what we do want to keep in mind when thinking of criminal, existential cinema, is how important that question of being for oneself or being with others happens to be. In Le Samourai and The American, the central characters are hitmen, in Point Blank, Walker accepts the inevitability of collateral damage as he determines to get back $93,000. In The Driver, the title character seems like he will drive the getaway car during a robbery but won't kill though he does. In Heat, Neil McCauley isn't a killer for hire but thinks nothing of killing someone else if they get in his way. Axel in The Gambler is the least criminal of our six characters, a man from a rich family who teaches literature at a New York university but who gets involved in the criminal world as he finds himself in debt.
Looking at Heat, Point Blank etc. we will try and comprehend an aspect of the criminally existential in cinema, seeing in the work, ideas vital to the existential imagination, not only Dasein and Mitsein, but also thrownness (Geworfenheit), Gelassenheit (coolness), the for-itself (pour-soi) and the in-itself (en-soi), as well as bad faith (mauvaise foi), facticity, being-towards death (Sein-zum-Tode), anxiety (angst) and mood (Stimmung). Discussing Heat, and more generally director Michael Mann's work, Ed Howard notes that "he can be a conventional storyteller if he needs to be, but his default mode and, I think, his preferred mode is to place the emphasis on mood, on atmosphere, rather than on narrative." Here we can link this mood to the existential through Heidegger's Stimmung when we acknowledge other terms like being-towards death. In the famous scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, between cop Vincent Hanna and criminal Neil McCauley, Hanna says "you do what you do. I do what I gotta do" as Hanna says that if he has to kill him he won't like it, but if it leaves someone as a widow because McCauley's going to murder someone, then "brother, you are going down." Neil replies, "There's a flipside to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in. I gotta put you down." Neil says he isn't going back to prison under any circumstance and it is as if he knows well that at this moment he is signing if not his own death sentence then at least acknowledging its strong possibility. But then Neil is a man who has always lived with a type of anxiety most couldn't tolerate, a solitary life that must remain so given the maxim he offers twice in the film. "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." He tells Hanna too that vital to the discipline involved in such a claim is that no matter who you are with, no matter what emotional complications are involved you walk away from everything. Here we have Dasein over Mitsein as criminal principle: that McCauley cannot live the life he leads if he develops attachments.
It is a principle we find in various manifestations in the existentially criminal. Usually, characters live alone in barely furnished apartments that can lend themselves to luxury (Heat) or impoverishment (Le Samourai) or the temporary (the flat Jack takes in an Italian village in The American). If Axel's apartment in The Gambler is more furnished than most it rests on his situation: he falls into the criminal but he doesn't predicate his identity upon it. His two-room apartment looks lived in. Modest perhaps given his family's wealth, it indicates Axel is trying to self-finance his life until he has to borrow money from his mother to cover debts, but comfortable enough for us to believe he has lived there for years. In contrast, Jef's apartment in Le Samourai is more or less one room with a kitchen and bathroom off it. He may also have been there for some time but it looks like a place he could leave within thirty-seconds if the heat happens to be around the corner. A flat with grey walls and plaster falling away, the wallpaper is peeling too and there are almost no personal items to suggest any attachment at all. After Jef comes back injured he wonders around his apartment in daylight and we see just how bare it is. The film then cuts to a gangster's apartment that, if the heat were around the corner, he would need a very large removal truck already fully loaded to escape. With numerous paintings on the wall, objets d'art placed on various and numerous no doubt expensive pieces of furniture, and the latest in soft furnishings, director Jean-Pierre Melville offers an ironic counterpoint but, rather than seeing this as the impoverished criminal who can't make a decent living against the gang boss who knows how to invest wisely, Melville couches it in terms of integrity. Jef's apartment isn't shabby because he couldn't afford a better one; it is that he doesn't want to be implicated in the shabbiness of values that can buy you a dream home but leave you betraying others. He's a lone wolf, one of the henchmen says to the gangster chief and there is nothing to indicate that the ganglord does anything on his own, and orders hits the way someone else might order in. Existentially the ganglord isn't self-sufficient as Jef happens to be and thus he falls into insincerity on the sort of terms that Sartre offers. In Being and Nothingness, the philosopher says "sincerity presents itself as a requirement and consequently not as a state...It is necessary that a man be for himself only what he is." Yet this creates a contradiction for Sartre since a subject cannot have the properties of an object (even if we may be seen as an object by others, but that is another story). A person is, in Sartre's formulation for-itself, while a thing is an in-itself. After all, "the principle of identity must not represent a constitutive principle of human reality and human reality must not be necessarily what it is but must be able to be what it is not." We cannot be as a thing can be but we can aspire to the being we wish to be: "it is necessary that we make ourselves what we are."
Looking at it another way we can say that Jef is what he is and see no contradiction in such a claim. But to say the ganglord is what he is, seems less firm. He is surely a gangster aspiring not to be a gangster, distancing himself from the milieu by living in a luxury apartment and hiring underlings for the crime work. In such a case, the gangster doesn't wish to be a criminal at all but wants the good life that criminal money can buy. Another gangster film unconcerned with existential questions might show the contrast between Jef's rundown room and the ganglord's luxurious apartment all the better to show failure against success but that isn't Melville's point even if we might find Melville's own perspective less than useful. Melville says Jef "is neither a crook nor a gangster. He is an 'innocent' in the sense that a schizophrenic doesn't know he's a criminal, although he is a criminal in his logic and his way of thinking." (Melville on Melville) What we can rescue from Melville's claim is that Jef is a criminal in his logic and in his way of thinking as a ganglord needn't be. Jef accepts a certain type of anguish: he lives as though he could be caught at any moment and thus must exist with a constant sense of alibi. This might take the form of the anonymous apartment he lives in but it stretches to attachments he refuses to allow himself. When he visits what we might assume to be his lover, he turns up only so that he can claim after committing a hit that he was at her flat during the time of the killing. While the ganglord looks like he uses his apartment to entertain, Jef's place appears like there is, apart from the bed, only one rickety chair in which someone could sit. In Sartrean terms, the ganglord aspires to be what he isn't: he seeks the bourgeois life but with the criminality of the thug. Jef remains what he is and resists the good life that criminality can buy him as though it would undermine the integrity of his tautological existence: that he is what he is.
Yet love also can potentially become a problem. If Jef falls in love (as Melville claims) with the nightclub singer he chooses not to kill, after exiting the room where he has just killed a gangster and sees her in the corridor, then this too means he can no longer be what he is. His singular and solitary existential identity becomes fractured; his need to remain himself, and the effort required for such a venture, becomes compromised. However, he is also the Dasein figure who is now aware of a broader society through the feelings that are created. For Jef, people have been objects "not of 'care' but of 'carefulness', solicitude; moreover they are this by nature, existentially, even when he passes them by and does not trouble about them, when they 'do no concern' him..." (Between Man and Man) So says Martin Buber, disagreeing with Heidegger's emphasis on Dasein but that we can see is a problem for Jef only when he moves from carefulness to care when he falls for the singer. Jef "falls in love with his Death", Melville says, as though the moment another human's existence means as much to him as his own, he must die.
In Le Samourai, Melville takes the common claim that he who lives by the sword must die by the sword and suggests more that it is he who lives by the gun who will die by the heart: Thanatos through Eros. Perhaps the same is true in Heat and The American, where Neil and Jack are also hitmen who start to have feelings they never knew they had. Neil meets the shy book shop employee Eady and wants to change his life, escape the US and the criminal world and start anew. It is possible to read Neil's actions late in the film as those of a hardened criminal but equally to see it as the deeds of a man who wants to make sure old business is finished before he starts over. Here he is on the way to the airport with Eady, for a new life in New Zealand. But after speaking to his old friend Nate, who tells him that he knows where the man, Waingro, (who has created so much of the chaos we have witnessed for most of the film), is staying, he cannot resist revenge. It is a hotel near the airport. Neil pulls off the highway and into the car park at the hotel and asks Eady to wait. He won't be long. He gets his man but also creates a situation at the hotel, setting off the fire alarm as part of his need to distract security, and before long Hanna is there ready to take him out. Would Neil have bided his time were it not for his newfound romantic dream, where his new life must start by tidying up the loose ends of the old one? We cannot say but it seems that in finding love he loses just a little bit of his head, that with Hanna on his tail why would he create more problems for himself when he has successfully pulled off a robbery and has more than enough money now for his New Zealand dream? Tom Ambrose, interviewing Mann, reckons, "once Neil meets Eady, though, and opens up to her, he is effectively undone." "I wouldn't say it's Eady,. I would say that Neil is the cause of Neil's downfall. Neil McCauley is a rigid ideologue. It's there in his choice of shirt, Mann says, suit, everything. There cannot be attachments, there cannot be an emotional life, and you don't allow yourself spontaneity because that will make you make a mistake. It's such a rigid structure of how to live your life that when he gets spontaneous and when he deviates from that, he is in trouble. He's a boat out on the high seas with no rudder." (Scraps from the Loft) What we can probably say with some confidence is that Neil will be able to acknowledge all the variables involved in a heist but doesn't quite know what to do with emotional ones that enter his personal life.
Speaking of people he has met, while visiting prisons, Mann notes that "men like McCauley who have a strong ego and are disciplined, will ask themselves existential questions: 'Why don't I commit suicide? If I'm not going to commit suicide, what is time? How am I going to do it?' And, the strong-willed amongst them will have a commitment of working on their body or their minds, so consequently, people educate themselves,... some convicts you encounter are stunningly literate...'How should I view my life in time? What's property?' They'll read Kierkegaard, and Sartre and Marx and Engels." (Vulture) One sees that the focus is on how to exist in the world as an individual, how to create a code, a set of beliefs and principles by which they can live. It makes sense they would be drawn to the existential over other philosophical systems like the Christian, Kantian or Utilitarian: ones that focus either on the consideration of the other, that one's action can be universalised, or that the deed works for the greatest number. A Christian ethos can say though shalt not kill; a Kantian maxim will insist that one must act only according to the maxim where you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. The utilitarian looks at the evidence and sees what the numerical, pragmatic solution to a problem happens to be. Existentialism obviously takes many forms but fundamental to most branches of it is the notion of personal responsibility and the difficulty of choice. Sartre gives a well-known example. A young man during the war came to him and wondered what he should do. He was living at home with his mother and wanted to go off and fight. Should he leave his mother and go to war or stay with his mother and care for her? His father was inclined to Collaboration and his brother had already been killed in the German offensive of 1940. Without him, his mother would be left more or less alone, and if he were to die she would lose another son. Sartre said he had no advice to give, there was no basis in existentialism to ground a decision. It rested on personal responsibility as the man must weigh up the importance of his mother's feelings alongside the need he felt to fight the Germans. ":...He was hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one side the morality of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side, a morality of wider scope but of more debatable validity. He had to choose between those two." Sartre reckoned that feeling is formed by the deeds that one does: "therefore I cannot consult it as a guide to action. And that is to say that I can neither seek within myself for an authentic impulse to action, nor can I expect, from some ethic, formulae that will enable me to act." ('Existentialism is a Humanism')
Sartre proposes one cannot find an abstract ideal because each situation must be thought anew, and the ethos rests in a combination of belief and action. If the young man loves his mother more he will stay; if his need to avenge his brother and fight for his country is stronger he will do that. The action will dictate the strength of feeling and the strength of feeling will dictate the action. He will be responsible for both without categorical reference to a broader morality. Sartre's example resembles the most famous of choices in existential literature, one that takes from the old testament Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac after God's command, only for God to release him from this impossible burden the moment he looks like he will go ahead with the sacrifice. Kierkegaard makes this central to Fear and Trembling, emphasising not the obedience to God but the anguish in the choice that will be overcome by faith in Him. But as Kierkegaard says, he does it for "God's Sake, and what is exactly the same, for his own. He does it for the sake of God because God demands this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake in order to be able to produce the proof...: it is a trial, a temptation." Like Sartre's young man, Abraham cannot abdicate responsibility for the choice partly in this instance because of the apparent monstrosity of God's wish. If God were to ask someone to help an old woman with her groceries there wouldn't be this anguish of choice: self, God and society could easily be aligned in the choosing. It is why Kierkegaard talks of the "teleological suspension of the ethical". "What gets suspended in Abraham's case", Edward F. Mooney says, "is the power of ethics to guide or provide decisive justification. Ethics is not abolished. At no point does Abraham relax his intense love of Isaac, a love universally required of fathers. His dilemma is caused by a counterweight, his sense that God's demand must also be honored." ('Abraham and Dilemma: Kierkegaard's Teleological Suspension Revisited') Abraham must choose, aware that he might not know whether he is a madman killing his son or a dutiful believer obeying the will of God.
It is rare for such an extreme dilemma to be found in the existential film (though Lars von Trier is very interested in absorbing the Kierkegaardian in different ways in Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville) but choices are often anguished nevertheless and certainly of some import in the criminally existential. Neil must choose between immediately going off with Eady or first to kill Waingro. While he may believe when he is making the decision that he is not choosing (that he can go off with Eady to New Zealand and kill Waingro), when we see him making the decision it is clear a choice is being made. After Nathan tells him where Waingro is staying, the film closes in on McCauley's face and we see various emotions passing across it before he suddenly pulls the car firmly to the right and off the freeway. A difficult choice has been made; reflected in the way he pulls the car hard to the right, just as before he decides to do so the film has bathed him and Eady in soft-light while the music indicates an almost heavenly future. The music and the visual tone blacken as Neil chooses darkness over light, Thanatos once again over Eros. He might believe he can kill Waingro and still go off with Eady but the film seems to suggest otherwise and so we aren't very surprised when after the deed Hanna tails him and then kills Neil. Neil has chosen this life and yet with Eady looks like he has found a way to escape it but instead succumbs to the need to kill over the need to love. Yet we might wonder if it is love that kills him: that before he wouldn't have needed to choose and might have got his man in different circumstances. Killing Waingro so directly and quickly, as he determines to leave the US with Eady, increases the risk of Hanna catching him. In The American, there are a few similarities, even if it looks like women have long been part of Jack's (George Clooney) existence. Right at the beginning of the film, he is seen canoodling with a lover Ingrid in a snowy retreat, someone he swiftly dispatches when killers are on his trail, fearing his identity will be revealed and that she might be involved in his ambush." Don't get attached is once again the motto but whether it is Neil who seems to have had no emotional or perhaps even sexual attachments in his life for a long time before Eady, or Jack, who not only has a lover at the beginning but frequents prostitutes in the town he hides out in, the problem arises when love gets in the way. Meeting Clara in the brothel he develops feelings, meets her in town and by a lake, and while suspicious of her motives is reluctant to be as ruthless with Clara as he was with Ingrid. It seems he has been steadily losing his killer touch: meeting his handler in town, the man says "above all, don't make any friends Jack. You used to know that." But friends he makes: both befriending a priest and embarking on the affair with Clara. The solitary man can no longer retain his solitude and though like Heat the film doesn't draw a straight line between his interaction with others and his final demise, we aren't surprised that the more he interacts the more likely it is that he will be killed. Like McCauley with Eady, he hopes to start a new life with Clara but just as he offers it a hired killer is about to take him out. The long shot on the pair of them is seen through a sniper's rifle and though she is killed he will then shortly after get shot by his handler and die from the wound. Again, as in Heat and Le Samourai, a man's interaction with the world leads to his end.
If Point Blank differs from the other three it rests on the emotional weight of Walker's past not its absence. At the start of the film, he has been left for dead by his wife Lynne and her lover as they go off with the cash after a robbery. The wife's lover, Rees, was an old friend of Walker's who he helped out by getting involved in the robbery but Walker is betrayed and left to die in a cell at Alcatraz where the drop-off took place. Point Blank works off a hazy atmosphere that makes it hard to discern what is real and what is recollection whether the film is no more than a dream or a man's last dying thoughts. But whatever the brilliance of its indeterminacy we can say with some confidence that Walker survives by proceeding in the other direction from Jef, Neil and Jack. While the others move towards sensitivity and love; Walker (Lee Marvin) moves away from it, even if he does take as a lover his wife's sister, Chris, who he initially rejects, and when they do make love it is a wary scene of montaged emotion. As Chris and Walker's bodies turn over in the bed, the permutations of problematic coexistence are evident. Earlier in the film, Chris ended up in bed with Rees, but only long enough for her to allow Walker to drag him out of the sack and threaten him as Walker used Chris for bait as a way of getting to his old buddy. Thus when Chris and Walker sleep together we see as they roll over that the bodies change. Walker is with Chris, then Walker is with Lynne, then Lynne with Rees and finally Rees with Chris. It is a homage to Alain Resnais' innovations in Hiroshima, mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad; it is also though an awareness of mistrust, a perfect encapsulation of Fernando Pessoa's remark about squandering "our personalities in orgies of coexistence." (The Book of Disquiet) Walker's mistrust becomes so great that he can't even, or more especially, trust the people from whom he is trying to retrieve the $93,000 Rees literally and figuratively screwed him out of. At the end of the film, the money is apparently dropped off but Walker is well aware that on a previous occasion it was a ruse, a sniper was on hand to take out the collector of the cash (which was just blank sheets of paper) and the same has happened a second time: a man has been taken out by a sniper bullet. The chance that the money is there is slim; the chance that he will be picked off high. At the end of the film he is in the shadows, wary of trusting anyone and why should he when the film has shown him betrayed by his wife, his best friend and those who have promised him the money? If the other films propose a Dasein conscience moving towards Mitsein, Walker is the man who has tried sharing his life with others but at too high a price.
We should make clear that when discussing certain existential terms that though they allude to the self they don't quite coincide with it. As John Macquarrie notes, when writing about Heidegger and Sartre and their interest in existence, we shouldn't confuse the individual self with the existence they discuss, even it is almost impossible to avoid doing so. "...Sartre, like Heidegger introduces terms of his own to clarify distinctions that get blurred in traditional terminology. It is the pour-soi (for-itself) of Sartre that corresponds to the Dasein of Heidegger and to Existenz." (Existentialism) If for Heidegger Dasein is strictly speaking to be there, and Mitsein to be with others, Sartre's main terms function differently. Heidegger's concepts, if we simplify them for our purposes, offer an almost perfect exemplification of the existentialist criminal's problem. Even more fundamental to be for-oneself or to-be-for-others, is the to-be-there of existence, the being-there in the world as a being in the world who has no being outside of that world but at the same time is always more than simply existing in it. It is why Heidegger differentiates between being alert to our existence and just being in the world, and that we are constantly forgetting our being. One of the problems with existing with others is that forgetting can be exacerbated in the sort of orgies of coexistence Pessoa mentions, as people fall into what Heidegger calls the they-self. "The self of the everyday Dasein is the they-self, which we distinguish from the authentic self - that is from the Self which has been taken hold of in its own way..." (Being and Time) This needn't alienate the self from others but it does mean that one is solicitous towards one's fellow beings, if usually at one remove, and that one must be resolute in one's actions and feelings. George Steiner notes that "the expression to achieve authenticity is expressed by 'resoluteness'. This is the term which Sartre translates as engagement, and which has passed into Anglo-Saxon cultural and political speech as 'commitment'." (Heidegger) In Sartre's formulation, this is close to the political but it needn't be, and in existential criminality, on film it certainly isn't. Resoluteness is precisely what Neil means when he says he needs to walk away from anything within 30 seconds if the heat is around the corner, or what Walker shows when he is aware that trusting others is a dangerous thing. Usually, it manifests itself as wariness, and also often sees language as diluting rather than expressing the self. If language is one of the means by which we exist with others, if, as Wittgenstein has acknowledged, a private language makes no sense, that the whole point of language is that it is shared, better to remain silent. Usually, criminal existentialists are men of few words and there is no better scene than a sequence a third of the way through The Driver that exemplifies this.
Here we have the titular character (Ryan O'Neal) offered the chance to work as a getaway driver for a robbery. The criminals want O'Neal to persuade them that he has the necessary skills. The Driver offers his price; one of the gang says "how do we know you're that good?" "Get in?" O'Neal says as the film cuts abruptly to the sound of screeching tyres while the Driver shows without another word just how good he is. Driving ferociously through an underground car park, O'Neal turns a perfectly shiny and almost new Mercedes into scrap metal. When O'Neal is finished he doesn't even need to open the door to exit the vehicle he gets out in a smooth and confident departure that is one swift movement; the door is no longer there, collateral damage to the silence the Driver insists upon. It resembles a scene early in Point Blank, with Walker interrogating someone as he looks for Rees. Big John is a second car salesman and Walker rather than initially telling Big John he is looking for Rees, says he is interested in buying a car and the pair of them take it for a spin. Walker tries to get info with rather more physical than mental effort, taking the interrogatory technique and giving it dynamic form. At one moment Walker asks Big John for info while briefly accelerating and abruptly breaking several times. Big John's head furiously shakes as though Walker is yanking him by the hair. Big John's reluctance to offer information costs him the car but he looks happy that it hasn't cost him his life. Another car is ready for scrap.
Kierkegaard proposed, "how ironical that by speech man can degrade himself below dumb creation he becomes a chatterbox." (The Last Years: Journals 1853-55) When Walker breaks into Lynne's place, she explains why she left him and went off with Rees. "His tendency to suppress basic human emotion renders him incapable of holding a conversationthe other person is usually the one who talks or acts", Koraljka Suton says, adding: "after coming back from the dead and bursting into Lynne's apartment, their conversation is exclusively one-sidedshe is the one doing the talking and the reminiscing, with Walker just sitting there beside her, mute, expressionless and immovable." (Cinephilia and Beyond) Jack in The American doesn't talk too much either. On the DVD extras, director Anton Corbjin explains that he had Clooney chew gum a lot in the film because his character had so little dialogue. Corbjin thought it the best way for the character to look expressive within his silence. In Heat, Neil talks when he has to and seems far less comfortable in language than Hanna. While Hanna is theatrically expressive, capable of going off on conversational tangents, Neil looks uncomfortable opening up and his maxim about the heat around the corner isn't an opening gambit over his existential condition; it is more an aphoristic way of closing down the conversation. In Le Samourai, Jef barely speaks at all, and director Jean-Pierre Melville allows for the laconic to pass for the humorous. When Jef goes and sees his regular mechanic to have the number plates changed in the car he has stolen, not a word passes between them. Even when Jef wants a gun all he does is click his fingers. The mechanic reluctantly hands over the gun, and huffily takes the cash Jef offers him. Speaking of Heidegger, John McQuarrie says, "he understands the relation of language to reality in terms of the making unhidden that which is talked about. Language is not a picture of reality, to be judged true if there is a point-to-point correspondence between the 'picture' and the fact it represents." (Existentialism) Yet Heidegger's concerns are for a different type of existential film, one that includes Kings of the Road, Five Easy Pieces, even Taxi Driver. In these works, there is a space between action and thought, between words and feelings that characters wish to disclose and the film is centrally about this problem. In Taxi Driver, Bickle goes to fellow cabbie Wizard, trying to explain the complexity of his emotions. Wizard offers a few words of advice before concluding that he isn't Bertrand Russell. The irony is that Russell wouldn't have been much help either: the sort of alienation Bickle suffers from was never going to be analysed with much consideration by so logically positivist a mind as the English philosopher. It would take a Heidegger, a Kierkegaard or a Sartre to work on the subtlety of Bickle's anomie his Stimmung, to use Heidegger's term.
However, in existential criminality on film, while mood is often important, and alienation evident, it is usually transformed into necessary action; into a deed done. The very point of Taxi Driver is that Bickle's murders are arbitrary initially, he intends to kill a politician, then changes his focus and kills the pimps. His purpose is to get anger and frustration out of his system; the target of that anger is secondary. The existential criminal is usually much more focused, the purpose may contain an underlying sense of alienation or meaninglessness but that is subsumed into various clear deeds. If the ego is often weak and susceptible in the non-criminally existential, in Heat, The American, The Driver, Le Samourai and Point Blank, the men are good at and believe in what they do; their crisis is not in what they are doing but how what they do collides with societal norms and expectations. In this sense, The Gambler is different, and in many ways closer to Kings of the Road, Five Easy Pieces etc. but like the other characters of malign cinematic existentialism, Axel shares with them the interest in risk allied to the ego, a fundamental aspect to many a film that is interested in criminality and the existential. In Heat, when Neil reckons one of his colleagues, Cheritto, should back out of a heist, that he has enough money put away and a family to worry about, he tells McCauley that he isn't only in it for the money: "for me the action is the juice." Axel could easily say the same thing about gambling. He isn't there for the cash; he is there to feel impregnable. Axel explains it thus: "I mean I like the uncertainty of it. I like the threat of losing. I mean the idea, uh, I could lose but somehow I won't because I don't want to. That's what I like." There is a place between contingency and control that often interests the characters here: whether it is Cherrito and Neil determined that their willpower can conquer a situation, Axel sure that he can impose his own certainty on the world of chance, or Jack feeling he can trust and not trust Clara simultaneously, they all wish to live in worlds that are both predictive and unpredictable.
Thus when Jack sees that Clara carries a gun he wonders if she is trying to kill him. He guessed wrong on the previous occasion with Ingrid but he also trusted his killer instincts. He took out a woman he needn't have killed but it was at least in keeping with his professional know-how. She was a perceived threat and he removed it. With Clara things are more complicated for at least two reasons. One, he didn't need to kill his previous lover and suffers a residue of guilt in the nightmares he has, and secondly he is falling in love with Clara. This makes the gamble possess far higher stakes: his feelings may be getting in the way of his judgement and to kill her would be to murder someone he loves. It is complicated still further by a fellow assassin in the village with whom he is helping build a sniper rifle. What he doesn't know but what he suspects is that he will be the rifle's victim. He might be seeking retirement but we notice that Jack is still in a high-risk environment and his increasing love for Clara makes the risks still greater. When they go for an idyllic picnic by the lake, Jack can't decide whether Clara is softening up to take him out or laying the foundations for a lifelong commitment. Is this the woman of his dreams after murdering the woman who has become part of his nightmares, or someone he should kill just as he should have let the other woman live? Jack has lived close to the edge for so long that everything looks like a precipice. But such is the existential condition, and given a particular twist in the films under discussion.
After all, one of the most fundamental terms in existentialism is anxiety, a basic sense of uncertainty about being in the world and the choices one faces in it. It means slightly different things to different existential thinkers. For Kierkegaard it is rooted in the religious; that man is free to choose: "Faith is the most important task to be achieved by a human being, because only on the basis of faith does an individual have a chance to become a true self. This self is the life-work which God judges for eternity." (Stanford Encyclopedia) In Heidegger it is the state of Dasein in an awareness of its freedom and its constant threats that are psychic more than physical. Since as Simon Critchley says, "the first thing to grasp is that anxiety does not mean ceaselessly fretting or fitfully worrying about something or other. On the contrary, Heidegger says that anxiety is a rare and subtle mood and in one place he even compares it to a feeling of calm or peace. It is in anxiety that the free, authentic self first comes into existence." (Guardian) It is an awareness of our place in the world and the responsibility we have for the self that we are in the context of all the other things that can make us forget our being, the bustle of existence that leads us away from the nothing that we work from. "...In the face of which one has anxiety, the 'It is nothing and nowhere' becomes manifest." (Being and Time) Sartre says that "in anguish freedom is anguished before itself inasmuch as it is instigated and bound by nothing." (Being and Nothingness) In most existential thinking, nothing is a something, a world behind the world that occasionally reveals itself in a form of anxiety that may or may not have negative connotations but that does connote the negative. How does this fit with the films we have been discussing? In most instances, the characters live with the awareness that the choices they have made are exceptional, that by choosing a criminal life they live in a state of anxiety, one that combines a tangible awareness of fear, and the intangible realisation that their lives are in conflict with the societal. The sort of remembering of being that Heidegger sees as occasional in most, will be a constant for Neil, Jef and others even if this is often manifest in making sure they don't end up in jail. Jef takes this to extremes by making his home the equivalent of a cell, as though determined to live so simply that prison life wouldn't make much difference. Neil may have a beautiful sea-front apartment but it is so sparsely furnished that one of his colleagues sleeps on the floor and wakes up saying "you need to get some furniture." The point is to exist as though nothing matters more than freedom and that within this freedom resides the anxiety that as soon as you become attached to the worldly, encroachments on one's freedom is likely.
Yet there needs to be a tension between the sort of anxiety Heidegger and Sartre talk about and the fear evident when death or incarceration is possible. If the film emphasises too much the latter aspects then we are in another crime thriller; if the anxiety of being is too present then the film needn't be criminal at all, and is better exemplified by Kings of the Road and Five Easy Pieces. Perhaps in this sense, The Driver and The Gambler are more liminal than Point Blank, Le Samourai, Heat and The American. In The Gambler's case because it is so clearly philosophically inclined as its central character addresses various existential problematics while he teaches Dostoevsky in his classes and so clearly wishes to define himself outside the limits of his wealthy family. With The Driver, it is because it is so close to just another crime film despite the nominal abstractions. When, in The Gambler, Axel's grandfather, a poor, brave immigrant who made his fortune in the US, tells Axel that the young man's beautiful girlfriend isn't for him, that she is no woman for a scholar, that she was "made for a clubman, a playboy...", his grandfather adds he must break it off that day. Axel doesn't quite take his advice but doesn't ignore it either, and rather than asserting his own desires over his grandfather's wishes, gets caught in a state of ambivalence that suggests someone struggling to be his own man. If he insists that, when he makes a bet, he believes he can assert himself over the future, we might see it as an expression of false omnipotence aware of the impotence he feels with the family. When his mother withdraws $25,000 so that her son can pay off a gambling loan, he accompanies her to the bank, and stands next to her as the teller hands over the cash. He seems shrunken and small in thist moment and makes up for it obnoxiously when they go over to a bank assistant in another bank to withdraw a further $15,000. The assistant insists they need proper proof of ID and he can't help. After the assistant takes a call on the phone which is clearly personal, Caan wraps the phone half-round his neck and tells the assistant to give his mother the money. The assistant comes across as officious and exacting and yet at the same time an employee who can waste minutes on the phone in private chat. We can feel Axel and his mother's frustration but Axel's response is desperate and thuggish, a hard man response to a situation that has shown him as more generally weak. He might admire the wilfulness he sees in Dostoevsky but Axel's assertiveness consistently seems feeble next to the familial ties that bind. There are shades here of Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, a rebel with familial comforts that he can't pretend isn't as fundamental as any free action he adopts. Usually the existentially criminal doesn't have family connections. We know nothing of Jef's family background, nor Jack's. In Heat, Neil says he's "got a brother out there somewhere" and that is more or less it. If Heidegger can talk about thrownness and Sartre about facticity, then the more thrown one appears to be, and the less facticity that can be attributed to the character, the more existential freedom of a certain type can be evidenced. In Heiddegger's formulation, Geworfenheit (thrownness) represents the contingency of the individual's existence in the world, "a having-been-thrown into the world" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and this seems much more the case with The Driver than with Axel, but we can add that while the title character has no biography suggesting as clearly as Jef that he has been thrown into his existence, this can seem closer to threadbare characterisation rather than Heideggerian nakedness in the world. Facticity can take many forms but central to it is that a person is both an agent of choice and an object of givens. One can choose to kill a friend or an enemy, to leave a lover, or leave one's country, but one cannot choose one's height, one's birth-place or one's parents. In Le Samourai, the lack of facticity allows for high levels of ambiguity that Melville's comments in interviews actually undermine. The more he tells us about how he sees Jef, the more he removes the enigma and weakens the availability of our projections. When Melville says of the man who visits Jef's friend and possible lover/ex lover, Jane, that "Wiener is the 'gentleman friend' who pays the rent", this is more information than the film provides and that we need. Melville also says, Weiner "has known for a long time that the girl he's keeping has a lover, he knows his name and what he looks like." In the film we don't know that; what we know is that it seems Jef is counting on Weiner recognizing him on the night Jef has killed the gangster all the better so that Jef can use this in his favour well aware that Weiner will be using it as an act of revenge. Weiner thinks that by recognising Jef at the line up he has incriminated him; in fact, by saying he is the man he saw, Jef has a great alibi. We don't need to know whether Weiner is paying the rent, don't even need to know that Weiner is a longer-term lover than Jef, nor even that Jef is Jane's lover at all. All we need to know is that Jef believes that Weiner will recognise him for whatever reason and that Jef won't be kept in custody. It is a great example of the less we know the more we can project, and at the same time see in Jef a man who needs to read another's man's psychology instinctively so that he can arrange the limits of freedom around it.
In The Driver, it appears more the opposite: that the titular character's lack of existence doesn't allow for the three-dimensionality of enigma but the one-dimensionality of shallowness. To understand this, we can think of the scene at the end of the film when the Driver returns to the LA bus station where the money from a robbery has been deposited. The woman who has put it there, the Player, has told him earlier that he shouldn't be in a hurry to retrieve it but the Driver insists he feels lucky. At the end of the film when he goes for the cash he is and he isn't lucky: there is no money in the bag but that is for the best since the detective who has set up the robbery in the first place to frame the Driver is standing nearby when he opens it. It seems that a man hired earlier by the Player to make the switch with two bags cheated her and deposited an empty bag. This is bad news when it comes to the cash but great news since it keeps the Driver out of prison. But there is no sense that the Player has been part of a greater plan either to screw over the Driver or to protect him. It doesn't seem that she was in on the switch so that she could go off with the money or that she arranged for there to be no money in the bag aware that the Driver wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to go and pick up the cash at the earliest possible moment and risk getting caught. In both Le Samourai and The Driver, the films remove the details of a character's motives but while with Jef we get a very strong idea of a man who has thought through all the available options, and gives to the film an enigmatic complexity, the removal of the details in The Driver arrives at a skilful, entertaining but finally trivial account of criminality.
This isn't easy to explain but let us try by suggesting Le Samourai's 'emptiness' contains a profound existential problematic while The Driver's 'shallowness' lacks it. It is as if Melville has asked how does a man live in such a way that he can kill others without conscience and survive without incarceration. The answer is simple. He avoids strong attachments with other people and lives as though already surviving the privations of prison life. He creates the ultimate freedom by assuming the worst conditions of jail. His life is one close to solitary confinement as he spends time with hardly anyone, and says almost nothing when in the company of others. When he goes to visit Jane the night of the murder, and then goes onto a hotel where he will later plays cards, even if this is for the purposes of an alibi, it doesn't seem it would be very different if he didn't need one. When he first turns up at the gambling den nobody says hello. These are just people he knows and plays cards with; there is nothing to indicate they are friends. It is an existence without others and without much room for contingent pleasures. There is no reason to assume Jef hasn't been living like this for years. Melville provides him with no back story and no personal crisis his life has led him to: Jeff has been thrown into the world and what matters is how he makes sense of the situation he is in and not the background out of which he has come. "I was careful", Melville says, " not to make him a parachutist washed out after the war in Indo-China or Algeria who had been taught to kill for his country!" (Melville on Melville) Why the film is empty rather than shallow however rests on how motivated we believe his actions are within the psychology Melville eschews. Jef constantly thinks ahead of and through the situations he finds himself in, as though viewing himself as a third party in a narrative into which he must fit. This might explain Melville's remark that he sees Jef as 'a schizophrenic', and while he doesn't exactly say what he means by this he does note: "I read up everything I could about schizophrenia the solitude, the silences, the introversion" (Melville on Melville). However, there is in Jef an ability to see himself as others see him but potentially unable to see himself introspectively. Nothing at all in his apartment suggests an inner life, no books, no photographs, no record player; only a painting above his bed and a bird in a cage. But why we believe Melville has created an empty character rather than a shallow one rests on Jef's ability to think through the implications of a deed and to do so with an inner integrity that could be called a certain type of ethos. The opening quote is credited to The Book of Bushido, though Melville made itup: "There is no solitude greater than a samurai's. Unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle." It is a samurai code meeting an existential ethos; the need to live anonymously meeting a reason for such solitude, one that rests on a private life that mustn't reveal one's identity. Yet while in a non-existentially inclined crime film we might assume someone is involved in crime activity for the better life it provides (Good Fellas, The French Connection, The Untouchables), in Le samourai it is more that he kills as an opportunity to remain private. There is little here that indicates the spoils of war, no sense that Jef wants money to buy things since anything he owned might undermine his anonymity. The film is so parsimonious with personal detail that we might wonder if Jef has chosen the life of a hitman so that he needn't get attached to anything at all that the alibi he uses to justify where he was on the night of the murder is a poor alibi next to the one that allows him to be a hitman so that he needn't get attached to people or things.
In The Driver, there is no equivalent sense of a man who thinks so far ahead, in creating the moves necessary to escape prison, that he thus creates one of his own, nor an equivalent notion that chooses a difficult life all the better to justify a necessary solitude. Both films give us very little but the emptiness that permeates Le Samourai is quite different from the shallowness that is manifest in The Driver. Walter Hill's film is a perfectly competent thriller this: The Driver, the Player, the Detective, the Connection and so on: people are no more and no less than the function they serve. Existential literature is often wary of names: the unnamed narrator in Notes from Underground, the semi-unnamed central character in Hunger, K in The Castle, or the unnamed narrator in Beckett's The Unnamable. The refusal to name names can give to the work a recognition of existential validity, part of being thrown into the world and not even clothed in the name that we are given at birth. There is nothing less existential than a name, nothing more that suggests essence preceding existence since nobody is born naming themselves. By indicating that people are what they do, Hill gives people control over their nominal destiny but it can seem close to a gimmick as the characters, and none more so than the Driver, seem to be 'playing' existential figures externally rather than internally. In other words, while Jef has internalised a mode of being that gives him a persona so vague that he exists as a constant alibi for his own existence, the Driver is a compendium of postures from other crime films, including Bullitt and Point Blank. It made sense that Hill originally wanted Steve McQueen for the role since its debt to Bullitt is enormous. Like Bullitt, the irony rests on a film that has more noise coming from the car than from the hero; the screeching tyres an assertion of self no dialogue can match. Meanwhile, the Driver is in the taciturn tradition of Point Blank too, but while Boorman's film manages consistently to justify Walker's rage that is too deep for speech, the Driver shows a man in sulky silence. In the scene when the Detective interviews him in the driver's hotel room, the Detective does all the talking and the Driver sits sullenly, a man who holds his tongue like a child in the headmaster's office that won't admit to a misdemeanour. Perhaps McQueen would have been better casting than O'Neal but it would have only forced upon the viewer how often before McQueen had played people who preferred the sound of a clutch over his own voice. Even McQueen had had enough of that. "He didn't want to do anything that had to do with cars at that time. He felt he had already done that and it was pretty hard to argue with" such a position. (Imdb) Hill's comment indicates McQueen found appearing behind a wheel stale but maybe there was something stale more generally that by 1978, burning rubber had become tired even if the way that the Driver announces his driving prowess with nary a word added just a little to the fetishised vehicle micro-genre.
Overall, however, one sees a film soaked in predecessors while Melville's film created something new: a haunted hero but whose empty being leaves a lot of room to wonder about what that haunting might be. Is it some complicated past that can't be expressed and cannot countenance close company or the very absence of a past that makes the ambiguity all the more unfathomable? Perhaps Jef is the criminal at his most accomplished; not only or most especially because he is good at what he does (that is a given in existential criminality) but that he is a subject absorbed into his objective: that his subjectivity is actually a form of objectivity. Early in the film, Jef has a large collection of keys and he is sitting in the driving seat of a car that isn't his own, looking to find the key that will start the ignition. He is trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, the meticulous crook who feels any hint of self is an unnecessary intrusion on the objective. Shortly after managing to start the car, he stops at traffic lights and a woman stares at him. It seems she is offering no more than a moment of flirtation but for a man whose mission is to cease to exist in the eyes of others, it isn't a woman's admiration he sees but the prying eyes of another. In Heat, Eady says that she has noticed Neil at the bookshop on a few occasions as she introduces herself to him he is wary and abrupt but for all his abrasiveness there is clearly enough receptivity for her to assume she could introduce herself at all. For all Neil's solitariness he lacks Jef's frosty force field, a barrier that looks like no soul could possibly penetrate (even if one does). If Neil makes great play of escaping the heat around the corner in thirty-seconds, Jef would be inclined to think that even to voice such a claim is to verge on the garrulous. We might see in Jef the apotheosis of malignant existentialism: the criminal life as the horrible logic of Dasein not even as Heidegger couched it, in his insistence that Being precedes being with others, but as Sartre famously offered it, in the maxim hell is other people. Hell of course needn't be other people, and for all Sartre's intricate exploration of the problem one has in the face of the other, in his "analysis of the shame one experiences at being discovered in an embarrassing situation...a phenomenological argument (what Husserl called an 'eidetic reduction') of our awareness of another as subject", (Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy), the other is still necessary for one's being in the world. Jef more than most sees the Other as a hindrance and his own self no less so. It isn't that Jef is self-hating; that would suggest still a strong self to hate. It is more that the self is a void, a necessary encumbrance in the act, a subject that gets in the way of the objective. One doesn't feel that Jef is interested in having a self in the first place; whether to love or to loathe.
We have perhaps arrived at a paradox. If existentialism is a philosophy predicated on the self in the world, rather than an abstraction philosophers talk about to set in motion philosophical conundrums, how is it that one of the great existential films focus on someone like Jef who seems to want to minimise that existence in the world? Yet we have noted that malign existentialism is in many ways distinct from its benign form that while the criminal has objectives that indicate their ego is very much in the thing they do and how accomplished they are at doing it, the benign figure tends to do little as possible (as in La collectionneuse), retreats from their profession (as the pianist central character does in Five Easy Pieces), or has tried numerous professions and found them wanting (Last Tango in Paris). In the malign form, though, the existentialists are usually the best at what they do: the driver is the best behind a wheel; Jef has never been caught, McCauley says he is hardly someone holding up liquor stores with a born to lose tattoo on his chest. What makes them existential isn't the crisis they are in but the gap between the personal life they wish for, the profession they practise, and the authorities who can imprison them. They have usually put a personal life on hold, but while Heat and The American show that a personal life becomes increasingly evident, Le Samourai shows that for Jef so complete is his self-containment that anything intruding upon it is a death sentence. Melville says, Jef "knows that as long as he lives he will win. Only death can make him a loser..." (Melville on Melville) He seeks tautological status: a hitman is a hitman. Once that circularity has been broken, so is the self that it contains. Melville's film is a marvellous example of a perfectionist for whom love would be an imperfection, a flaw in the model. It isn't just that Jef won't express his feelings; as we've seen in the sequence where the mechanic changes the number plates early in the film, Jef doesn't even express verbally his demands. From a certain existentialist angle, Jef is the pour-soi demanding to be an en-soi. "Being-in-itself and being-for-itself have mutually exclusive characteristics and yet we (human reality) are entities that combine both, which is the ontological root of our ambiguity." Thomas Flynn says. "The in-itself is solid, self-identical, passive and inert. It simply "is." The for-itself is fluid, nonself-identical, and dynamic." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) That we have facticity makes us en-soi; that we can change so many things about ourselves allows us to transform our lives but also be dissatisfied, tormented, ambitious or disappointed with our existence. But from Jef's perspective, he looks like a man who wants for nothing because he wants nothing: that he wishes to remain what he is and not what he might become. Just as there will be a drive-in many to be rich and successful, and always determined to improve themselves by whatever criterion they choose, Jef is determined to remain what he is: a man who kills people well. The less he exists socially, the more anonymous he can remain, the better he will be at the job he does. Jef is the epitome of the inner integrity of character so that job and man are welded as one but it is an interest we often find in criminal existentialism in its various manifestations. The difference between Le Samourai and The Driver is that Melville's film pushes this question to its limit; The Driver plays it as a cliche of the loner film.
While we have noted there are crossover features to criminal and non-criminal existentialism in film (that Taxi Driver and The Gambler could be in the malign or the benign), most films fall clearly into one category or the other: that there is an enormous difference between Kings of the Road and Point Blank, and between Five Easy Pieces and Le Samourai. There is usually a vulnerability, a fragility, to be found in its benign form as characters appear lost, confused and even desperate early on, while frequently what we see in the crime-oriented dramas are characters becoming increasingly aware of their fragile state as their professional expertise cannot guarantee them safety or meet their often newfound, emotional needs. In The Gambler, Axel makes a speech at his grandfather's eightieth birthday party and offers a brilliant account of his grandfather's brilliant life. He relates how at the age of thirteen his grandfather put a knife into a Cossack pig who pushed his mother to the ground and that at fifteen he supported a family of five. At twenty he opened a furniture store and ended up with the largest furniture firm in America, all the while helping whichever family member needed his support. Axel offers his speech with clear admiration but when he says "I am the one most deeply in his debt, because every time I feel my reach has stretched too far, I remember the moves that he has dared", there may be irony in the tone, mockery in the statement, self-loathing in the realisation that he won't match his grandfather's achievement, or an awareness that what is meaningful for his grandfather cannot be meaningful to him. His grandfather has achieved great things, he has come from nothing and made himself into something a humble immigrant into a multi-millionaire. He has moved from limited facticity to immense transformation. Yet the grandfather's life is not one that concerns the film, with self-destruction of far more interest than self-improvement, as if a film that doesn't entertain the negation of a life, the impossibility involved in every possibility, wouldn't captivate the existentialist. Often this segues into nihilism, as in the deaths of Neil, Jef and the horrible scarring that Axel is victim to at the end of The Gambler, yet what matters is not the destruction but the authenticity of one's existence, however ostensibly limited; that someone has been themselves even if that self (as in Jef's case) wills its being into the status of an objective. Thrown into the world, aware of their finitude, their being-towards death, they fashion for themselves an existence that may often end in their demise but hasn't concluded on their inauthenticity. They have been their own men, true to themselves and haven't compromised. These are terms in common parlance but are easy enough to offer but harder to live by. The authentic life may take many forms even if it is almost impossible to define, but what we often discover in films like Heat, Le Samourai, The American and even The Driver is that they have lived and often died with a dignity of small gestures that in another film would have gone unnoticed or proved irrelevant. When Jef doesn't bother taking his ticket after dropping his hat off at the club near the end of the film, it is a detail that acknowledges the acceptance of his incipient demise. At the end of Heat, it looks like Hanna has got his man, but Neil reminds him that he said he was never going back to jail, and sure enough, he won't be. Death is a victory of sorts. His integrity is intact even as his body is full of bullet holes and covered in blood. I
n Camus' The Outsider, Meursault prefers to go to his death than entertain an identity the courts would create for him, where his authentic life would get turned either into a terrible one that led to his murdering of the Arab or where he becomes a figure full of remorse over what he has done. He is neither one nor the other but the state demands he must be, in a binary distinction that would leave Meursault not quite himself. The heroes here are themselves, and whatever that might mean, existentialism, more than any other philosophical system, has tried to explain, even demand. Halfway through The Driver, the detective describes the title character's life. "No friends. No steady job. No girlfriend. You don't ask any questions. Boy, you got it down real tight. So tight there's no room for anything else." The lines are offered by the detective with nothing but resentment in his voice and on his face before he adds: "that's a real sad song." It is indeed from the side of society but rather less so from an existentialist perspective that insists, as Kierkegaard claimed, that nothing good comes from the social. "Truth always rests with the minority ... because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion." (Papers and Journals) To view such films from the societal position of illegality would be missing the point. Instead in their own small way they offer nothing less than the teleological suspension of the ethical. They might not have to choose between killing their son or rejecting God's demand, but that is partly because they are unlikely to have children in the first place, and be unlikely to accept the Word of God either. But the suspension is there, and when Bickle in Taxi Driver says "loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores. Everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man", the men in existential criminality would probably reply that they don't have much time for God and they have chosen their loneliness and may have to die because of it. They embrace solitude as they embrace death: as a way of being themselves.
© Tony McKibbin