ou’re alone, the way you were born, the way you were meant to be. Just the way you like it.” -- Blast of Silence
I’m interested in the anti-heroes who see the world as a lie, moved by an unstoppable, life-denying nihilism. They tell us something, where we are, making our illusions seem ridiculous, like an unoccupied space. Let’s look at the real Outsiders, the existential spectres of the screen, those dark figures living outside our comfortable and compromising circle. The Outsider is part of cinematic history. He’s always been there—let’s call this collective nihilistic force, this stark representation of discontent, Bleakman—holding our hand in the flickering dark, running his bony finger up our spine. Bleakman offers a sour puck to the sugary grimace of idealist fiction. Bleakman has stalked through the years, hard nosed, the wind howling the tempting echoes of rejected lives, horribly afraid of his own existence, taking shape in some of the most memorable and brilliantly drawn characters in cinema. Bleakman moves ever onward, turning away from a life that urges unhappiness, instead choosing his own. He is a man of strange motivations and desires, his honors and sins are thrilling.
The Broken Fingernails of Dirty Hands
The lure of the Outsider is that it’s all or nothing: ultimate yes or ultimate no. Bleakman’s moral compass points North or South, East and West are for the pretty boys and pen pushers. Action, life’s motion, yells in two-colour, black and white. Think of Walker, that lean, vertical, dead, bastard from Boorman’s Point Blank. Here’s a man gnawing at himself with purpose, grinding the dividing line of being and nothingness between his clenched teeth. And what is his purpose? To recover the money he is due, and nothing more. Walker embodies the notion that motive is a matter of belief. Bleakman is free, but even his freedom is misery. The Outsider, as Walker shows, finds freedom in something that gives expression to himself, in digging a tunnel through life, slicing its roots. Antonioni once remarked of The Passenger that the only way Locke, played and abandoned by Jack Nicholson, could find meaning in his life, was to leave it behind and choose another path, examining himself from a distance. Both Walker and Locke give good expression to Sartre’s idea of “freedom as terror.” To allow your self to live is to invite death. Both characters are dead before their stories close, although Walker is dead from the very start, and perhaps, throughout the duration of the film. The entire narrative may be the instant release of death within him, a last complicated thought. Locke and Walker are men with identifiable points of self-departure.
Henry Barbusse once wrote that “Death is the most important of all ideas,” a theme which Bleakman carries in his pocket, like a crab gripping his leg. The Outsider’s relationship to death, like life, reminds me of the figure of the “balloon man” in EE Cummings’ “In Just,” a twisted, cloven-footed old man watching children play, calls them towards him. There’s a sense that the children are happier versions of the man, and that he has in mind for them a sinister purpose. The Outsider is remorseful not only for the life he leads, but those which he might. Think of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, still writing home to his family while damning civilized life to hell, or the Professor (Edward G Robinson) in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, who cannot even imagine a life in which he can find comfort—even in his wildest dreams he is stranded on the periphery of happiness.
The tendency to desperately hold a grim purpose can be seen similarly in Sean Penn’s The Pledge and Pakula’s The Parallax View. Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a man who slowly edges into Bleakman’s shadow, assuming the role of the Outsider, over the course of the film. Facing the useless void of retirement, he clasps onto the practically impossible task of uncovering a child killer, almost bringing resolution into existence by sheer force of will. Ultimately, Black fails, and he is left near mad, alone. Joe Frady, too, in The Parallax View, fatally attaches himself to an oblique mystery to assassinate a Presidential candidate, for which he is ultimately, posthumously found guilty. Frady alienates himself, continuing to exist beyond his arranged death, like Locke, in a state of freedom as crisis, seeking a more essential, intense route toward death. They cling to a line endorsed by Huxley: “Behold but One in all things, it is the second that leads you astray.” Unable to deliver themselves into the whirl of normalcy, they decide on one path, and that path only, existence beyond its jagged borders is unbearable, unthinkable.
In Toback’s Fingers, Harvey Keitel plays Jimmy, a young man unable to function without music. Clearly it is his gift and his curse. It motivates him, but destroys him. In the ultimate test of its worth, it is absent, he cannot bring himself to play in the audition that could save him from his destined life on the margins. His true form of expression, it would seem, despite his manic attempts to forge himself another way, is violence, not music. The same can be said of one of Bresson’s many Outsiders, Michel in Pickpocket, who seeks something more than coin each time he performs the ritual of theft. For a while, almost as an inverse form of moral abstinence, it sustains him, he teeters, like Kafka’s hunger artist, on the precipice of inner-revelation, before ultimately his judgement weakens and he jumps while he is falling, into the arms of the authorities.
So, fixation is Bleakman’s disease, the Outsider’s salvation and destruction. Bleakman might be known to clip his nails down to the bone, for want of tangible alternative—harming, just to feel. So, too, Willard in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a spectre-like figure haunted by his own boundlessness, his own lack of dimension. Willard takes on a mission he knows will ruin him. Kurtz becomes for him the end of all journeys: what could possibly lie beyond? As the film progresses, winding into the diseased heart of war, Willard drifts away from the self that accepted the mission. He comes to attribute his own meaning to events, interpreting the world through the Outsider’s need for clarity, lucidity: “They were going to make me a major for this, and I wasn’t even in their fucking army anymore.” Willard orbits Kurtz, psychose ? deux, himself a colossal Outsider. Kurtz has drifted further still, naturally pressing his perceptions inward, in the face of no other reliable structure, he is his own God, “Horror and moral terror are your friends” he tells Willard, identifying that there is indeed freedom deep within Sartre’s terror.
Each of these characters, at one point, have the opportunity to embrace normality, love, but they turn away from it, as if from a stink. They are driven by something else, a search for something to tell them that life is not a lie. Axel Freed in Karel Reisz’s The Gambler has a good life, a great girl, and a temporary future that he meticulously destroys. The film makes it explicit that his compulsion isn’t to gain wealth, but to negate himself. He no longer sees any difference between success and failure, “I’m not going to lose it, I’m going to gamble it.” The Outsider rarely finds what he’s looking for. Like Kowlaski screeching through his own vanishing point, Bleakman, the Outsider, comes to realize that he who seeks may go astray.
Finding the Way Back to Yourself
The figure of the detective, like the cowboy, is key to any understanding of the Outsider. We’ll come to the horses later, working our way backwards, like Bleakman creeping back through his crumbling inward corridors. Harry Mosby, in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves is the man in modern crisis, the existential detective regarding himself through cracks in the mirror. The world is in fragments, a troublesome place for those who must piece things together. Whomever it is the detective is paid to follow, in such a lonely and voyeuristic profession, they are only ever really chasing themselves, edging ever closer to self-discovery, dangerously self aware, like the genre itself. They damn themselves to personal and professional alienation, think of Harry Angel in Parker’s Angel Heart or more recently Cantini in Quo Vadis, Baby?, and we can see that, in the hope of uncovering some revelatory last clue, the detective sacrifices happiness for despair. In every sense the detective is Bleakman’s truest form, existing precariously on the edge of nothingness, desperately clinging to the illusion of totality, to the fallen notion that there is a solution to the problem of being alive. We have Marlowe, in Hawks’ The Big Sleep, a razor-sharp misanthrope, driving through the darkness, as if through nothingness, signs hanging in the air, embroiling himself in an entropic mystery, not for love, not for anything, just to feel the rub of his skin.
Other detectives have been equally entranced with the mechanics of their own profession. Both Klute and Vertigo drown two vague detectives in a psychosexual whirlpool. Scottie becomes entranced by his own fascination with an onerous doppelganger and John Klute appears to be a man hiding behind his own eyes, peering out at his own voyeurism, as his case solves itself. These two pursuers isolate the detective’s obsession with following, force themselves into an erotic metaphysical slipstream of passing clues and fleeting connections, without ever knowing what they’re chasing. They are left stranded, abandoned by the meaning they have forced themselves to believe in. Harry Caul, in Coppola’s The Conversation , illustrates how the detective’s very existence is governed by information and how a misreading of this information can lead to a misinterpreted existence. Harry is a surveillance expert, but when he believes himself to be the centre of a corporate conspiracy, the skills which have brought him renown in his field are of no use without any point of reference. So, to make sense of the world, Harry uses himself as a receiver of his own transmissions, sending him into an inward spiral of feedback and frenzy. Harry investigates the case without ever leaving his own skull, displaying his inability to stop thinking, in the end embedding the mystery at a depth too far for him to strip down to, leaving him utterly exposed and vulnerable. The Outsider detective consumes himself like Quinn in Paul Auster’s City of Glass or Oedipa Maas in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, until there’s nothing left to digest. They press moral and physical discipline to its conclusion, engaged in a withdrawal—not from struggle—but from life, forsaking themselves.
The Last Man Lives Longest
Travis Bickle’s unhinged assault on the modern world is—essentially—the very beat of Bleakman’s heart. The film draws together the modern psychopath and the lone cowboy, the villain and hero as one mean entity. Many so-called cowboy anti-heroes are misleading. They are not true Outsiders. Rather, they are trying to draw the inside out, around them. Gary Cooper in High Noon, Henry Fonda in Warlock, even Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider, represent a restorative force, trying to tip the balance in favour of what they see as “good people.” John Wayne is an Outsider we can rely on. He consistently displays the true fortitude of a man in exile. Ethan, in The Searchers, grumbles that he doesn’t “believe in surrenders.” Bickle echoes this in his diary, he is a man who “won’t take it anymore.” Both are lonely individuals who are confronted by what they perceive to be evil, and are determined to eliminate it by force of violence. The vigilante cult of the 70’s rejuvenated the spirit of the Western, in this sense. But what makes Travis Bickle different from Kersey in Death Wish is that his principle motivation is repulsion, not revenge or the need to uphold social standards. He just needs to kill them because they are the cancer of a rotting disease. Travis doesn’t have an identifiable “other” to victimise, no “Red Indians” to shoot at. In the cauldron of the city’s night, it’s hard to tell who’s worth killing and who’s not. The heroes in films such as Bend of the River and High Noon, in particular, are the type of men Travis gains inspiration from. As he twirls his gun in the mirror, trying on the role of the aggressive hero, he realizes that all has to do is look like a hero and he will be one.
Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper, another urban Western, offers a similar character that seems absent of any reliable self. In many ways, Travis is not plugged into the world other people live in. Taking Betsy to watch a porno is a gross misjudgement that he doesn’t comprehend. He is totally dislocated, like an outstretched, broken arm. John LeTour in Light Sleeper (Willem Dafoe) is an equally departed and emaciated figure. He has thrown himself into the notion of luck. He is obsessed with the idea that his luck has run out. That’s the path he has chosen, and he just can’t shake it. As a form of self-deletion, he throws away each of his diaries as soon as he has filled them, withdrawing himself day by day. Oddly, he survives. After murdering three men in a botched drug deal, he is imprisoned. He seems to be at peace, really enjoying it. “5 years,” he ponders, “maybe 7,” he adds hopefully. The film ends on a freeze-frame, holding the hand of the woman he seems to love. Just like Ivan in IvanXTC, he experiences a moment of total clarity at the point of absolute despair. The Outsider’s shot at happiness dances on this razor’s edge—only at the final moment is there any chance of humanity winning through. In this case it seems well worth it and the same might be said for other Outsiders who make it through, such as Harry Sefton in Stalag 17, Skip in Pickup on South Street, and Jeb in Pursued. Travis never gets this release. His attempt to kill himself fails. The final, arresting shot of the film shows him riddled with the same paranoia as before. Although he has now officially been stamped a hero, a part of society, he still drives the cab, still fears the world.
Life Is a Baited Trap
The detective can be seen as a victim of his own inward divisions, but there are those characters, often so exquisitely drawn, who just can’t stand it. For them, we’re all worthless, civilized life being nothing more than a form of living death. One such rotten (but hardboiled) egg is Dixon Steele (Bogart) in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, a sour puss, if ever there was one. As a suspect for a young woman’s murder, the detective points to cold reaction: “what are you arresting me for?” Dixon teases, “lack of emotion?” This disconnection is typical of the bored, unchallenged Outsider. Dixon, tired of his shameless life as a screenwriter, relishes the role of murder suspect, enticed to such a degree that he steps into the fictional line he has traced. The bored Outsider usually becomes all too aware of the Nietzschean observation that it’s not the height that kills you, it’s the fall.
Danny Huston in IvanXTC illustrates this point. So ambivalent to his existence is he that even lung cancer cannot shake him from his own chosen form of self-destruction. Ivan asserts his independence from nature by suffocating himself with designer drugs, artifice, in the face of his naturally degenerating cells. He displays a fearsome arrogance before his sickness takes hold, which shifts into overdrive during his dizzy decline. At the point of death he seems to experience a moment of humanity. As in Bonnie and Clyde, there is an ecstasy in death, a convulsive release of the vigor that a nullified society couldn’t draw from him.
There is perhaps no better example of the nihilistic, morally serrated Outsider than JJ Hunsecker in Alexander MacKendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success. Like Welles in Touch of Evil or Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, Burt Lancaster’s horn-rimmed monster of a gossip-columnist is a monumental force. Constantly aggrieved, even his own happiness is loathsome to him. Oddly obsessed with destroying his sister’s romance, Hunsecker lives for struggle, for aggravation, for raw emotion. Unlike the pleasantly sadistic Mr. Brown in Joseph H Lewis’ The Big Combo, whose principle concern is financial gain, Hunsecker has no purpose other than his malevolence. As the Berryman line goes, “Life, friends, is boring”—so do what you can to keep it lively. He is a dressed animal, reminiscent of Jack London’s fearsome Wolf Laarsen, striking with might, just to feel life squirming in his tightly clenched fist. Here is an Outsider who’ll do anything for a kick. Of course, he doesn’t see it coming, how hard it kicks back. He knows that the way most men live is not living at all, so why not have the best of it? He mocks his tortured right-hand-man, “Don’t remove the gangplank, Sidney—you may want to get back onboard,” revelling in the pure threat of the small world he has assumed. Even Bleakman is jealous of Hunsecker’s total derision.
In Allen Baron’s little seen Blast of Silence, we have Frankie Bono, one of Bleakman’s most tragic histories: a cynic, but a true Outsider who can’t quite accept that existence isn’t concealing something from him, that there isn’t just a little more than what we’ve got. Bono is a fine expression of Kierkegaard’s man in despair, refusing to “be himself,” to give in. He is a contract killer, but clearly not the cold automaton he would like to be. Bono begins to remember his past, and contemplate that dreaded thing for all Outsiders: the future. Unfortunately for Bono, his more hopeful thoughts are snuffed out by the revolting cynicism of his inner-voice, which narrates the movie in an accusatory second-person: “you beat the hate into your head until you can taste it on your tongue” it tells him. Frankie, like Hunsecker, lacks purpose, clinging to each kill the way Michel picks each pocket or Mike Hammer approaches each cypher-case in Aldrich’s blistering Kiss Me, Deadly, grasping his profession as if it were something tangible. The film opens with the voice lamenting Bono’s birth, disturbing the peace that preceded it. He has a chance at happiness, but he blows it, he cannot interact, he grows cold and sweaty around a childhood sweetheart, before attempting to rape her. He tries to go back on a hit, tries to turn it down in a moment of weakness that’s more pathetic than redemptive. Like Alan Ladd in Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire, he reaches the bottom of himself. Blast of Silence shuns the cool lifted by Melville and Delon for their own Outsider exploits (in films such as Le Samourai and Le Circle Rouge, and the general Franco-Italian obsession with the slick Outsider), rather it’s as he is if killing himself with each execution and, with the glimpse of love, he finds he can kill himself no longer—this is his despair. But he cannot love or be loved. Hunted, he is gunned down by others just like him, left for dead in the reeds, with only the spiteful voice for comfort: “this is it baby boy Frankie Bono, you’re alone now—all alone. The scream is dead, there is no pain: you’re home again, back in the cold black silence.”
A Glimpse of Purpose
Not all outsiders are destroyers, many are indomitable creators. Kirk Douglas’ Van Gogh in Lust for Life is a force, bursting with vibrant human pressure. Kinsky, as Fitzcarraldo in Herzog’s film, clutches to his fantasy with the ambition of a delmented god. The Outsider often lunges for the life that others lead, but they scale too high, too fast, and fall without even the promise of hitting the ground. We tend to remember the destructive forces as they are simply, undeniably exciting. The Terminator is an interesting take on the destroyer-Outsider, it brings together the noir and the Western, processing the Outsider into a harmonious killing machine, who threatens to make Outsiders of us all.
For all his dour observations, Bleakman is no cynic, rather his reaction to the world is often stoic. But he offers us hope, which is integral to the world of fiction and to that small place that sits outside our window. It’s important that we admire people who don’t accept the way the world is, the shitty way things are. Why should we feel victimised, ground down by the constructions of the modern world? Who’s world is real? Is it ours: one of compromise, comfort, and humiliation? Or that of the Outsider: a world of loneliness, struggle, and authenticity? The threat they offer is stimulating. Colin Wilson recounts the story of Graham Greene, who as an adolescent, would take his brother’s gun, sneak into the forest and play Russian roulette: “when there was only a click, it was as if a light was turned on ... I felt that life contained an infinite number of possibilities.” This is what the Outsider strives for, these moments of clarity to cut through the sore tedium of living. It’s a high price that Bleakman pays, a life in which love is not permitted. Perhaps he is not the flickering darkness, but the flickering light.