Kubrick’s Noir Men: An Essay on Ontology

George Fragopoulos

From Blank to Blank—

A Threadless Way

I pushed Mechanic feet—

To stop—or perish—or advance—

Alike indifferent—

If end I gained

It ends beyond

Indefinite disclosed—

I shut my eyes—and groped as well

‘Twas lighter—to be Blind—

To partake in Dickinsonian language: Kubrick’s noir men often have a feeling of Blank about them.  Even when fully present on the screen they are somehow never there there.  Perhaps this is because they are almost always shuffling their mechanical feet to the “indifferent” drumbeat of contingency, always drawn to fates and ends they can never fully control.  Apparitions, ethereal creatures, these masculine Blanks literalize the word Noir, leaving it ringing woefully hollow, empty: it becomes a flaccid, drained term after their habitation in it.  Kubrick’s Noir Men take their ontological nothingness very seriously.  With apologizes to Hegel: Noir men live in the dark night of the world in which all men are Blanks.

Image from Killer’s Kiss (1954)

Davy’s Face: man of good faith, pugilist—soon to be former pugilist—, fish lover, and weak-jawed hero.  Let us focus on his profession: what is a boxer if not an athlete whose Face-to-Face encounters with an Other define his very sport, his very being, and all this within the confines of the ring?  Is there a better sport as metaphor for life itself? Zizek speaks of smashing the neighbor’s face; is this not precisely the goal of boxing?  The boxer, therefore, is perhaps the most ethical of athletes for he is always aware of the power that the Face holds, and of the harrowing nature of truly confronting the Other.  The pugilist knows of the Face as both metaphor and as corporeal reality.  Davy’s awareness of the ethical dimensions of the Face is made tangible in one of the very first shots Kubrick shows us of him in his apartment: sitting before his mirror, fingering the curves and contours of his battered face, all in anticipation of the beating he is certain he will receive in the ring.  The fish-bowl distortion anticipates the violence of the ring; it also anticipates the violence that Davy’s double, Vince, is so often willing to traffic in.  Vince enacts this violence in a variety of ways, most tellingly with the smashing of a mirror that contains his image, a moment of doubt and self-loathing.

Image from The Killing (1956)

Johnny Clay— the very name itself suggesting a malleability that denies him any real sense of being, the Noir Man always on the cusp of becoming a something other than what he currently is­ as inky jet of nothingness, an aporia in the middle of the screen, shrouded by cigarette smoke and hazy robbery plans, plans which will fail.  (Intelligence never helps Kubrick’s men.)  As Levinas has suggested, an ethical relationship can only be consummated through the Face.  What to do with Kubrick’s Noir Men, those who often lack any semblance of a Face to begin with?  Are we meant to take this as commentary on the idea that we, as members of the audience, are not meant to partake or relate with those on the screen?  Can we relate?  Should we not?   Levinas: “The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face.  This mode does not consist in figuring as a theme under my gaze, in spreading itself forth as a set of qualities forming an image.  The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me, the idea existing to my own measure and to the measure of its ideatum—the adequate idea . . . the face brings a notion of truth …”  Kubrick’s Noir Men are this very surplus, this overflow, the irreducible remainder of the ethical encounter.  They are the stuff of ethics, but not necessarily ethical beings.

Violence and jouissance.  The exaggerated, ejaculatory spray of sweat echoes not so much the actual violence of the blow but reveals the hidden sexual tension behind the sport of boxing, making vivid homoerotics often cloaked and hidden in a caul of violence and fury.

Another note: the mechanical precision of the strike is impressive—an attack brought about by a body that appears robotic, cyborgian.  The boxing ring as arena of mechanized violence.  Is the ring not simply an extension of the violence inherit in the modern world?  Thesis: we are all machines capable of extreme violence.

Confrontation in the mannequin warehouse.  What becomes of a boxer once he stops using his hands?  A metaphor for castration and the finitude of the body, the dismembered mannequin hands, the partial objects which make present that which is absent, are not threatening symbols—no sword of Damocles here—as much as a marker for past trauma and violence.  The hands mock Davy’s status as Noir Man, caught as he is between pluralities of being; Davy’s past life as boxer has come to an end: what is he now?  The surreal battle Davy will enact with Vince in the warehouse suggests—as does Davy’s former career as boxer— the body as Protean clay, something that contains an almost infinite amount of possibilities, the multiple possibilities of being.  Noir Men, in other words, are always on the cusp of radical transformation and change.

Noir Men make interesting bed-fellows.  Planning, execution, meeting, conniving: Noir Men operate through homosocial bonds that almost always exclude women.  This is what makes Sherry’s intrusion into Clay’s plans so catastrophic: she overthrows the phallocentric order of things, and why her murder by her emasculated and cuckolded husband is a forgone conclusion.  The world of Noir Men brings to mind Rousseau’s thoughts on masturbation: “It allows them to dispose, so to speak, of the whole female sex at their will and to make any beauty who tempts them serve their pleasure without the need of first obtaining her consent.”


George Fragopoulos is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He has published reviews, essays and translations with The Quarterly Conversation, Words Without Borders and The Critical Flame.

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