The essay discusses the Stoic philosophy which characterizes Kubrick’s early noir films, specifically in the way the protagonist from The Killing ultimately surrenders to the police, in spite of his best efforts to evade the Law.

by Steven M. Sanders

Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is an early, comparatively short, tightly coiled film that nevertheless gives some indication of the director’s later productions, with their emphasis on art direction, focal lengths, and special effects. Much of the appeal of the 1956 heist melodrama is found in its temporally fragmented style as we follow each of the participants through the events leading up to and including the day that ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) robs a big-city racetrack of $2 million. Their stories are implicitly connected by their participation in Johnny’s plan and then become rather abruptly connected on the day of the heist. Kubrick has said that he and producer James B. Harris wanted to make the film because they were so impressed by the structuring of time in Lionel White’s thriller Clean Break, from which the script was adapted.1 The precision required for the plan’s split-second timetable is reinforced by the formal structure of the film, which overlaps and repeats events, and by voice-over narration to establish the time of each scene. When studio executives expressed dismay over this unconventional structure, Kubrick attempted to rewrite the script in a conventional, linear form and recut the film accordingly, but he simply could not get the effect he wanted, so he restored the film, and it was released in its original, nonlinear state.2

The Killing is widely thought to be the breakthrough film of a nascent virtuoso, and there seems to be little doubt about the distinctive sensibility at work in it. Although the film’s highly delineated style is justifiably praised by critics, its philosophical significance has been largely ignored. Indeed, Spencer Selby’s Dark City: The Film Noir may be the only place to find an in-depth discussion of the film’s philosophical themes. If, as Selby believes, The Killing is a rich and coherent picture, this suggests that the theme of the power of the artist to control events is essential to the style of the film. It might also explain why Kubrick operates quite visibly in the deployment of his effects rather than remaining hidden behind the scenes. Ultimately, The Killing is philosophically noteworthy for its use of twists of fate as a plot device and a methodology for Kubrick’s commentary on fate, morality, and meaningful life. Of course, Johnny Clay’s absolute confidence in his criminal enterprise is the basis of the film’s double irony: Clay avoids being killed because he does not anticipate the heavy traffic that makes him late for the meeting where the money from the robbery is to be divided, and he is ultimately captured by the police because no matter how well he has planned, he just cannot anticipate every contingency. But before we look into these matters, I want to place the film, and especially the characterization of its protagonist, in a wider context of philosophy and popular culture.

Cult of the Cool

In a recent essay, Lee Siegel lists some qualities of cool, “the descriptive term for an existential condition” characterized by a certain haughtiness or insolence in the treatment of authority figures; acting contrary to expectations; solitariness and unaffectedness; speaking in a measured, unexcited style; and appearing to be unaffected by external circumstances or forces. These “rudiments of cool,” Siegel writes, “come straight out of Aristotle—his definition of the ‘great-souled’ man—Epictetus, and Montaigne,” and he identifies such “bourbon-drinking Bourbons of cool” in the American cinema as Gary Cooper’s sheriff in High Noon, Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Marlon Brando’s motorcycle rebel Johnny in The Wild One, James Dean’s Jim Stark in Rebel without a Cause, and Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Samuel L. Jackson, and Nicolas Cage.3 Siegel’s observation is helpful, even if it does not capture the important distinctions among the philosophers he mentions, and I use it as a point of departure for viewing The Killing through the lens of the agent-based approach to ethics found in the writings of Aristotle, the Stoics, and elsewhere.

Sterling Hayden’s portrayal qualifies Johnny Clay for membership in the Stoic wing of the cult of the cool.4 To understand why, we must briefly examine some equally interesting if less central examples of the stoical cool character in 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s cinema: Robert Mitchum’s down-andout gambler Dan Milner and ex-GI Nick Cochran in His Kind of Woman and Macao, respectively; Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt in Bullitt, affluent art thief Thomas Crown in The Thomas Crown Affair, and ex-con bank robber Doc McCoy in The Getaway; Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (except for one awful lapse, when Palmer machine-guns an American agent covertly observing the transfer of cash for an abducted British scientist); George Segal’s Quiller in The Quiller Memorandum; Charles Bronson’s contract killer Arthur Bishop in The Mechanic; and Warren Beatty’s investigative reporter Joe Frady in The Parallax view. As these examples indicate, coolness transcends genre, with the stoical cool character appearing in caper flicks, espionage films, westerns, crime melodramas, paranoid thrillers, and cross-genre films such as The Killing and The Asphalt Jungle (also starring Hayden), which combine the intricate plotline and suspense of the heist film with the sense of impending doom and character-as-destiny outlook of film noir.5

The qualities of character found in the cool protagonist can be traced to the Stoics, who practiced what one admirer, nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, called a “spiritual dietetics.” Believing that happiness cannot be attained by changing things external to us, the Stoics advocated an attitude of acceptance of our fate. Since we cannot shape the external world to fit our desires, we must turn inward and shape our desires to conform to the way things are. “This is attained,” writes Schopenhauer, “by our always keeping in mind the shortness of life, the emptiness of pleasures, the instability of happiness, and also by our having seen that the difference between happiness and unhappiness is very much smaller than our anticipation of both is wont to make us believe.”6

It does not follow, as Schopenhauer reminds us, that we must actually reduce our needs to a minimum. We can continue to possess the tangible goods of life and enjoy that aspect of life, as long as we keep in mind the uncertainty and transitoriness of such goods, on the one hand, and their essential worthlessness, on the other. We must “be ready at all times to give them up” and “constantly to regard possession and enjoyment as dispensable, and as held in the hand of chance; for then the actual privation, should it eventually occur, would not be unexpected, nor would it be a burden.”7

The influence of Stoic ideas is reflected in the current widespread use of the term stoical to express one’s acceptance of misfortune without rancor or remorse and, more broadly, an outlook that brings metaphysical and ethical ideas to bear on the practice of life. The Stoics, of course, had no monopoly on practice-oriented philosophy. There were the Epicureans and the Cynics, and Plato and Aristotle before them. In our own day, action-guiding philosophies such as pragmatism, Marxism, and existentialism all have their advocates. But unlike these modern outlooks, Stoic ethics makes “living according to nature” central, and the individual’s realization of what is naturally appropriate for him is the basis of his moral awareness. Since the logos—divine providence, nature, fate—governs everything that happens, a virtuous man who fails to do right should accept this without distress or unhappiness, for his failure must have been for the best. Indeed, since moral virtue is the only good, the (perfectly) virtuous wise man, by definition, does the best he can, so he has nothing to regret.8

Photo Finish on a Merry-Go-Round

To find these Stoic ideas in The Killing, we have to replay a few of its key scenes. The heist conveys the promise that the protagonists will “make a killing” at the track and involves the killing of a racehorse as a diversionary tactic. In addition, when one of Johnny Clay’s accomplices, racetrack betting-window cashier George Peatty (portrayed with nearly pathological self-effacement by Elisha Cook Jr.), discovers that he has been two-timed by his wife, he goes on a killing spree. All this gives the film’s title its ambiguous reference. By the end of the film, Clay realizes that despite his careful planning and preparation, he cannot force events to happen as he wishes. Thus, he can neither anticipate nor control the psychological power that Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor) has over her husband, from whom she extracts information about the heist and then passes it on to her lover, Val (Vince Edwards). Val arrives at the location where the money is going to be split up, intending to rob Clay and his four accomplices. Peatty, like the others, is awaiting Clay’s arrival with agitated anticipation. But when Val arrives, and Peatty realizes that he has been played for a fool by his wife, he starts blasting away, killing everyone. Although Peatty is mortally wounded in the crossfire, he manages to make it back to his apartment, where he finds Sherry packing a suitcase. His worst suspicions confirmed, he shoots his wife and then collapses. Meanwhile, Clay, who had been delayed in traffic, arrives just as Peatty emerges from the brownstone where the split was to take place. Clay proceeds according to plan and drives away. He buys a suitcase in which to carry the haul from the robbery, picks up his girlfriend, Fay (Coleen Gray), and heads for the airport.

Johnny Clay is one of those fatalistic outsiders who makes his gamble at an unlucky time and comes up empty-handed. His stoical cool lies not only in the acceptance of his fate but also in his reticence over the course of the film. He plays things close to the vest, hiring Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwarian), a wrestler, and Nikki Arane (Timothy Carey), a sharpshooter, to create diversions while the robbery is in progress. But Clay refuses to let them in on the bigger picture or a share of the loot. He tells them, “You don’t need to know, and you’ll be paid well not to ask.”

Believing that planning will ensure mastery over events that, in reality, are beyond his control, Clay is foiled by some simple twists of fate. For example, at the end of the film, the suitcase containing the money from the heist drops from the luggage trolley because the driver has to swerve to avoid hitting a poodle that has run onto the tarmac. The lid pops open before the suitcase even hits the ground, and the currency spills out, flying across the runway and into the air. Commentators have surmised that this scene is lifted from John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947), in which the Mexican bandits unwittingly scatter the gold dust to the winds. But whether the resemblance is due to imitation, homage, or coincidence, the scene assures us that Clay’s future is similarly scattered to the winds as the plainclothes detectives who have staked out the airport move in with guns drawn. Clay knows that the jig is up, and rather than flee or fight, he accepts his fate, mumbling, “What’s the difference?” as he surrenders.9 This is very much in the spirit of apatheia, the acceptance of one’s fate, as recommended by the Stoics. Such acceptance is found in film noir as well, when the protagonist recognizes that his doom is sealed by a stroke of fate.

Fate and Morality

There is a striking parallel between Stoic philosophy’s view that providence operates through a deterministic causal nexus and Kubrick’s introduction of coherence and control over his film’s narrative, with its fragmented temporal sequences and offscreen narration.10 Just as the Stoics provided in their philosophical outlook for the inexplicable workings of fate, Kubrick makes fateful interventions in the film through twists that, presumably, Clay could not have anticipated. These spell his doom and make for an emotionally satisfying answer to the film’s central moral question: will Johnny Clay get away with it? Still, as Selby asks, why must Clay fail in his quest? His answer is that “Clay must fail, not because he is breaking the law, but because his innermost motives are immoral and totally misguided.” The must here concerns Clay’s moral psychology. Given the kind of person he is, “Clay’s immorality is inseparable from his quest for a god-like power,” and that is why fate is against him.11

Selby develops this interpretation to encompass the fate of Nikki Arane as well. To obtain a parking spot in the full lot (which he needs access to so that he can shoot the lead horse, thereby creating a diversion), Nikki ingratiates himself with the black attendant by giving him a big tip and appealing to his sympathy, telling the man that he is a war veteran and a paraplegic. The obliging attendant lets Nikki enter the lot. As the race is about to begin, the attendant offers Nikki a good-luck horseshoe, but Nikki has to get rid of the man so that he can carry out the plan. He dismisses him crudely with a racial epithet, and the infuriated attendant tosses the horseshoe to the ground as he storms away. Nikki then shoots the horse and attempts to make his getaway, but as he is backing up the car, a tire blows out. He tries to jump out of the car and flee but is shot by a police officer. In a panning shot reminiscent of those used to such powerful effect in the shock endings of The Twilight Zone, for example, the camera reveals that the fateful horseshoe has caused the flat. In Selby’s words:

This sequence is so important because it gives us the most complete information regarding the fate which we now know is Kubrick’s self-conscious and premeditated manipulation of the events depicted. The horseshoe is an overt and fairly obvious symbol of the fateful control, and it is directly linked to Nikki’s relationship with the black parking attendant. The implication seems to be that if he had been nice to the attendant and accepted the horseshoe, Nikki would have escaped successfully. This was, of course, impossible because of the kind of person Nikki was. He could only be nice to the attendant when he thought he needed him. . . . Though Nikki doesn’t know it, the horseshoe offer really is an offer of the good luck which is necessary for his survival. Revealing his true feelings toward the attendant necessarily involves refusal of the gift of luck, and that’s why Nikki dies.12

Thus, Selby argues, “As with Nikki, the fate which dooms Clay is self- consciously based on Kubrick’s negative moral judgment of the character.” Clay “treats people as a means to his own selfish, greedy ends. Each person that he conspires with is absolutely necessary to the success of the plan, and that is the only reason why Clay cuts them in.”13

Friends as Means and as Ends in Themselves

Selby offers an inventive and insightful interpretation of The Killing and its ethical message of the need to treat people with respect and as ends in themselves, not merely as means to one’s own selfish ends. He supplements his analysis with highly apposite illustrations from this absorbing film. But he does not make a completely convincing case for his interpretation. His own question—“why must Clay fail?”—is not unanswerable (at least in Kubrick’s terms), but the answer is far more complex than the one Selby gives. Rather than simply dismiss those aspects of plot and character exposition that are implausible and unconvincing, I intend to give some philosophical account of their inadequacy.

We can distinguish between the evaluation of an individual’s character and motives (as in the ethics of Aristotle), on the one hand, and the evaluation of an individual’s actions and their outcomes (as in the ethics of John Stuart Mill), on the other. Once we do so, Selby’s adverse moral evaluation of Johnny Clay becomes problematic, since The Killing provides grounds for a more complex assessment of his character. Granted that each of Clay’s accomplices is required to carry out the heist, what better reason could he have for cutting them in than that they are “absolutely necessary for the success of the plan”? Clay does not need a further reason or justification to pay them off, Selby’s assumption to the contrary notwithstanding. Since Maurice’s and Nikki’s services are indispensable to Clay’s objective, and since he offers to pay them well, it is misleading to characterize Clay’s motivation as “selfish” and “greedy.” Of course, Clay’s behavior is both illegal and immoral, but this is a judgment about what he does, not a judgment about who he is—an important distinction, since a person of good moral character may do something wrong, and a person of questionable moral character may act in a way that is morally right.

More important, it is misleading to call Clay’s character into question by implying that he treats his accomplices only “as a means to his selfish, greedy ends.” On the contrary, he dismisses the romantic overtures of bookkeeper Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) with sensitivity (although Unger is clearly heartbroken), and he shows Maurice and Nikki respect by paying them well and explaining that, “for certain reasons, including your own protection, I’m not going to give you the whole story.” He is candid about his intent to keep things close to the vest. “Twenty-five hundred dollars is a lot of dough, Maurice,” he tells the wrestler. “Part of it is for not asking questions.” And when Nikki wants to know what Clay’s angle is, he tells him, “What my angle is, is my business. And Nikki, five thousand bucks is a lot of dough and that’s what I’m paying it for, so nobody has to know my business.” This indicates that Clay regards these men as rational contractors who are free to accept his offer or to turn it down, a sign of respect.

Maybe Clay plays things a little too close to the vest and downplays the seriousness of the risks when he tells Nikki, “And if you do get caught, what have you done? Shot a horse out of season?” Clay is not entirely blameless in failing to spell out the wider criminal context in which Nikki’s actions will be undertaken. If they are caught, Nikki will likely be charged with being an accomplice to a felony. Still, nobody forces Nikki to accept Clay’s offer, and he is only too happy to earn a cool $5,000. As I indicate above, Nikki has an awful, ugly moment at a crucial point in the heist, but it is unclear whether that happens because it is part of his nature, as Selby believes, or because Kubrick is stacking the deck against Clay, which seems just as likely. It is pretty clear, however, that Selby is mistaken when he claims that the parking lot attendant’s offer of the horseshoe is really an offer of good luck, which is necessary for Nikki’s survival, and that Nikki dies because he refuses that gift. It is far more accurate to say that Nikki dies because he is shot, and he is shot not because he refused the gift but rather because of the attendant’s intervention. Nikki is unable to make his getaway because he gets a flat tire, and he gets a flat tire because the attendant threw the horseshoe on the ground. What Nikki needed was not luck but the attendant’s noninterference in the first place.

Living a Meaningful Life

Questions about the meaning and point of life are central preoccupations of Johnny Clay and his accomplices, who evidently believe that money is the solution to their problems and that criminal activity (or at least one big heist) is an efficient means of achieving a meaningful life.14 We can see why these beliefs might serve as obstacles to, rather than vehicles for, living a meaningful life. Living a meaningful life involves distinguishing between the means for realizing some appropriate purpose in an impersonal (or at least interpersonal) way and the means for achieving a particular person’s specific wishes and desires. The former invokes objective standards; the latter replaces objectivity with individual inclination and idiosyncrasy, something that both the Stoics and Aristotle were quick to repudiate.

Let us leave the particular circumstances of the protagonists in The Killing long enough to pursue the issue more generally. Any attempt to understand the idea of a meaningful life must address the fact that there are a number of models to which ordinary people (not just philosophers) turn when thinking about the notion: exuberance, moral perfection, nirvana, and self-fulfillment, to name just a few. Based on the first model, exuberance, a meaningful life is one filled with passion, ecstasy, risk, even suffering. Its overriding aim is emotional intensity, a life driven by the will. Based on the model of moral perfection, a meaningful life is principled, conscientious, and dutiful; it is an autonomous life guided by reason—at least in those versions of the model (such as Immanuel Kant’s) that link morality with practical reason. The model of nirvana typically combines detachment from one’s passions and desires with the transcendence of the self in order to merge with some larger, impersonal oneness. The model of self-fulfillment is best construed as realizing one’s potential. However, self-realization, or doing what is in one’s nature, does not mean that there is just one thing it is in one’s nature to do; our natures are much too complex and various for that. Still, some ways of living are far more fulfilling to us than others. The implication is that some ways of life are more meaningful (to us) than others, and this may have less to do with the external challenges we face when attempting to live any of the alternative options than it does with fulfilling what it is in our natures to be and do.

Each of these models has its advocates, its theoretical and practical advantages, and its limitations. In the remainder of this essay, I briefly contrast one version of exuberance with one version of self-fulfillment, because these models seem to be the most applicable to questions about the meaningfulness of Johnny Clay’s life, given his character and the circumstances in which he finds himself.


What I refer to as the exuberance model is in fact one example of a more general outlook on life that might be called romanticism. As the term is used here, romanticism refers to an approach to life according to which “the will should be the overriding element in the dominant attitudes” of meaningful lives.15 Romanticism thus places motivational supremacy in the will as opposed to the reason, as in Plato, Aristotle, and Kant. Used in this sense, Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre should be classified as romantics, each of whom, not coincidentally, portrayed human relationships as filled with strife, frustration, bitterness, and disappointment. This is particularly acute in Nietzsche’s numerous references to women (“Toward morning, however, Zarathustra laughed in his heart and said mockingly, ‘Happiness runs after me. That is because I do not run after women. For happiness is a woman.’”) and in Sartre’s grim depiction of personal relations in Being and Nothingness.16 According to romanticism, a meaningful life can be achieved, if at all, only through an arduous struggle toward self- transformation, and only a few exceptional individuals succeed in this struggle, for immense motivational energies are required to surmount the daunting obstacles imposed by the external world. Ultimately, “the world is chaotic, not orderly; reason is not a guide to truth but a rationalization of the will,” and meaningful lives must be created by individual efforts, “not found by conforming to external requirements.”17

In contrast to all this is a view we might call rationalism, according to which the external world is not chaotic but orderly; the best guide to discerning and understanding this world is reason, and a meaningful life depends on such discernment and understanding and living one’s life accordingly. Rationalists disagree about whether this order has a divine source, whether reason is empirical or a priori, whether it is possible to attain certainty, and whether individuals can exercise sufficient control over their lives to actually make them meaningful.18 They also differ about how to think and act in light of these epistemological and metaphysical doctrines. But at the core, there is fundamental agreement among rationalists on the role of reason in living a meaningful life.

At a superficial level, Johnny Clay’s approach to life reflects both romanticism and rationalism. As a career criminal, Clay is accustomed to strife, overcoming resistance, and living the kind of edgy existence endorsed by romantics in film and literature. His meticulous planning of the heist,  which is his brainchild, shows the influence of rationalism on his thought. He is rational to the extent that he believes he can succeed only if he carefully plots a course of action, and to all appearances, Clay lives a purposive, goal-driven life. However, he fails to link his short-term and long-term goals, and as a result, he fails to see the folly of his ways. The risks he is willing to take are enormous, especially in light of the comparatively conventional life that seems to be his ultimate goal. We are neither shown nor told that Clay had reached a dead end in his efforts to achieve this goal by lawful means; given his evident intelligence, it is difficult to understand why Clay could not have found legitimate employment to provide the means to a secure future. Of course, Clay wants it all at once, and there lies the appeal of the perfectly planned heist—the one big score that he believes will put him on the sure path to happiness with Fay.

Character and Necessity

According to Selby, “At any time, Kubrick could have gummed up the works with an occurrence that Clay couldn’t have planned for.”19 This is true, but the twists of fate that are depicted in the film as tripping Clay up are events that he could and should have anticipated, because they are so obvious. For example, Clay is capable of meticulous attention to detail in the planning of the heist and shows a high level of competence in its execution. Yet when he needs a suitcase to carry the cash, he gets one on the cheap at a pawnshop. And he knows that the suitcase does not have a reliable locking mechanism, because he tests it later when he transfers the money into it from a duffel bag. (I will not address the plausibility of depicting someone as careful as Clay failing to check the soundness of the luggage at the point of purchase, or not taking the precaution of dividing up the $2 million into two smaller bags.) In a noir film, with its typical emphasis on realism, Clay’s ineptitude in this connection simply does not ring true, and his colossal errors are compounded beyond all plausibility. Perhaps Selby is correct in saying that Clay’s determinative flaw lies in his hubris, his assumption that he has godlike control over all the relevant events, such as keeping Sherry Peatty in check.20 This interpretation might explain why Clay comes to grief, but it still does not answer Selby’s own question of why he had to fail.

The same questions of apparent character inconsistencies are left unanswered in connection with Nikki, who initially reveals great finesse in dealing with the parking lot attendant and then suddenly becomes a dunce when he needs to get rid of the well-intentioned fellow and his horseshoe gift. Instead of telling the man, “Thanks very much, I’d like to watch the seventh race alone,” he infuriates him with a racial epithet. This, of course, leads to the notorious horseshoe-throwing incident. Kubrick (and Selby) would have us believe that backing up causes the horseshoe to penetrate the tire’s sidewall, causing a flat. But here and elsewhere, Kubrick leaves us wondering whether he has forsaken realism for dramatic necessity.


Philosophically, what is striking is that Kubrick has violated an important Aristotelian principle in his depiction of Johnny Clay and Nikki. According to Aristotle, virtues are characteristics we acquire by exercising them, and if a person acts habitually in accordance with the right rule, then he will do so on all occasions. I take it that this applies to the exercise of prudence as well as any of the other virtues Aristotle discusses, such as courage and temperance. Surely, if Clay and Nikki have the virtue of prudence, it is psychologically untenable to think that they would go to pieces just when it is in their best interests to keep their wits about them.21

Perhaps Kubrick’s artistic intentions can be vindicated by the acknowledgment that the virtues of courage, self-control, initiative, and industriousness can be exercised exclusively self-interestedly. They can be exercised by those whose interests conflict with the interests of others and are inimical to the general good. Seen in this light, Selby’s judgment that Clay’s ends are “greedy and selfish” seems correct, because he wants riches that he neither earned nor inherited, that he neither won nor deserves, and he wants them at the expense of others. The fact that he is willing to give his accomplices a fair cut and share the rest with Fay, living the good life in Boston, does not make him a paragon (or even an average specimen) of moral virtue. This fact, however, gives Kubrick’s “twist of fate” interventions by which Clay is punished for his immorality an even greater deus ex machina quality than if he had simply shown the social costs of Clay’s illegal and immoral behavior. There are exceptions to the rule that if one is immoral one will be punished and therefore unhappy. It is not always and necessarily the case that morality and self-interest coincide, and neither we nor Kubrick can rule out the possibility of a flourishing amoralist—one who sees clearly that his happiness does not require him to be moral. Acknowledging this unfortunate fact about the moral life is a sign of realism and competence in our moral thinking, and failure to do so in order to reach a preordained conclusion undermines the plausibility of Kubrick’s narrative intent.22

To those who are mindful of Aristotle’s approach, which connects living virtuously with happiness or flourishing, we must remember that for Aristotle, the acceptance of a certain kind of social life presupposes the norms by which to judge a person’s actions. With the dissolution of that traditional social life, the connection between virtue and happiness becomes precariously contingent. In this sense, Kubrick’s solution is a throwback to the kind of approach that invokes divine providence to close the gap between virtue and happiness in our world. But this maneuver did not work for the moralists and theologians who tried it in the past, and it does not work for Kubrick, who has the added burden of having to rely on a totally depersonalized fate that is difficult to distinguish from coincidence.23


Finally, let us note that Johnny Clay is not rational in the more exacting sense of keeping his choice of ends free, well informed, and open to criticism. We have no reason to think that Clay has an open and critical attitude toward the ends he has already chosen—to enrich himself and his accomplices and to live in decorous obscurity with his soon-to-be-wife, Fay. An individual who fails to entertain a properly self-critical attitude toward his aims and goals fails to meet an important condition of rationality and, in so doing, places his chances of living a meaningful life in jeopardy. This is a matter of controversy, of course. Romantic writers such as Leo Tolstoy and D. H. Lawrence, who celebrate faith or will at the expense of reason, would repudiate the connection I have drawn between rationality and meaningfulness. For instance, in the simple and untroubled life of the Russian peasant, Tolstoy found an exemplar of meaningfulness and thus rejected reason to embrace a life of faith. Others would deny that rational choice should be understood in terms of being free, well informed, and open to criticism.

Despite these possible objections, it seems reasonable to think that in building on our dispositions, aptitudes, capacities, and talents we simultaneously develop our own distinctive individualities and we are, in the words of William James, “confronted by the necessity of standing by one of [our] empirical selves and relinquishing the rest.” Many alternatives might have been available to Johnny Clay at the outset, but he had to choose because, as James colorfully puts it, “the philosopher and the lady-killer could not well keep house in the same tenement of clay.”24 However, it would have to be the case that no alternative was capable of realization before Clay would be justified in concluding that his life could not be meaningful if he departed from his plan. If there is a determinative flaw in Clay’s thought and action, it lies in his failure to subject the empirical self he has chosen to stand by (and the course of action he has chosen to take) to the self-scrutiny needed to determine whether, in David Hume’s illuminating phrase, he can “bear his own survey.”25 This capacity for self-appraisal simply is not present in Clay’s conceptual repertoire, and as a consequence, he comes to grief. Although The Killing depicts after-the-fact explanations of human actions by tracing them back to the causes that were sufficient to produce them, we must not forget that human beings make choices, respond to incentives, and seek to satisfy preferences, and that these are especially subject to the influence of reflective awareness or self-consciousness.

I have argued that Kubrick’s use of the heist is suggestive but finally insufficient as a means of conveying his ideas about fate, morality, and meaningful life. Clay’s lapses in planning and Nikki’s racism seem more like contrivances than matters of thematic richness. There is thus a certain understated ambiguity in Kubrick’s treatment of these themes that leaves us wondering where the line is to be drawn between Clay’s immorality or hubris, Nikki’s heavy-handedness, and sheer caprice.


My thanks to Jerold J. Abrams and Christeen Clemens for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay, and to Paul Goulart for valuable observations on The Killing.

  1. Kubrick interview in the Observer (London), December 4, 1960, as cited by Spencer Selby, Dark City: The Film Noir (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Classics, 1984), 120.
  2. These details are recounted in Eddie Muller, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 152–54.
  3. Lee Siegel, “Cool Off,” TNR Online, May 31, 2005, (accessed June 7, 2005). I am grateful to Aeon Skoble for bringing this essay to my attention. Siegel identifies actors rather than their screen roles, as I have done here, except in the case of Steve McQueen, the ostensible subject of his essay, and Warren Beatty (The Parallax view, Shampoo).
  4. Sterling Hayden also played the psychotic General Jack D. Ripper in the brilliant Kubrick film Strangelove (1964).
  5. I discuss this aspect of film noir in “Film Noir and the Meaning of Life,” in The Philosophy of Film Noir, Mark T. Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006).
  6. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1966), 2:159.
  7. , 156, 155.
  8. See the discussion of Stoicism by R.W. Sharples in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 852–53.
  9. For contrast, compare the ending of Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959), in which Richard Gere, playing the Jean-Paul Belmondo role, faces imminent arrest by going out in a blaze of bullets and self-justifying glory.

As I explain later, this is romanticism with a vengeance.

  1. The phrase “deterministic causal nexus” appears in David N. Sedley’s entry on Hellenistic philosophy in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 321.
  2. Selby, Dark City,
  3. , 121–22.
  4. , 122.
  5. In this respect, my account agrees with Selby, Dark City,
  6. The present account is indebted to John Kekes’s interpretation of romanticism, The Art of Life (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002), 226. Kekes refers to “lives of personal excellence,” whereas I am concerned with “meaningful lives,” but the difference is not important for present purposes. I apply a similar distinction between rationalist and existentialist approaches to life in “Poker and the Game of Life,” in Poker and Philosophy, Eric Bronson (Chicago: Open Court, 2006), 41–51.
  7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable Nietzsche (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1954), 275; Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1966), pt. 3.
  8. Kekes, The Art of Life, 226–27.
  9. Selby, Dark City,
  10. I raise some critical questions about this Aristotelian account of psychological dispositions in “No Safe Haven: Casino, Friendship, and Egoism,” in The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese, Mark T. Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007).
  11. I explore this issue, and come to a somewhat different conclusion, in “Why Be Moral? Amorality and Psychopathy in Strangers on a Train,” in Alfred Hitchcock and Philosophy, David Baggett and William Drumin (Chicago: Open Court, 2007).
  12. I have adapted the excellent discussion in Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1966), ch. 12.
  13. William James, Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1893), 1:309, as cited by Joel Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” in Time and Cause, Peter van Inwagen (Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1980), 267.
  14. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 620.

The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick, edited by Jerold J. Abrams


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