Thursday, May 22, 2008

Movie: The Sniper (1952)

I knew The Sniper was a rarity not available on video, which is why I recorded a TCM airing a while back. I only got around to it earlier this week. And there it still sits on my DVR, to serve as a reminder of the many months I let slip by without watching it. It’s that good.

Based on a story by Edward and Edna Anhalt (who won an Oscar two years earlier for another dark gem, Panic In The Streets) and scripted by Harry Brown, The Sniper is a chilly case study of a sex offender and serial killer. Or, as the opening titles put it, an account “of a man whose enemy was womankind.”

The movie was ahead of its time in any number of ways. The remarkably clinical point of view, for instance; Eddie Miller, the title character played by Arthur Franz, is presented as neither a monster nor an object of pity, and even though Freud was in vogue at the time there’s no effort to psychoanalyze him. Miller’s bitter line “My mother never taught me anything” is the closest we get to a motivation.

Or the treatment of violence. Miller’s long-distance executions of women have lost none of their impact; I can only imagine how these scenes played in ’52. I won’t soon forget Miller’s second victim, a middle-aged drunk who made the mistake of trying to engage Miller only to call him on his lies, staggering up to her lonely room and tucking a doll into bed before meeting her fate in front of a window. A sequence involving Miller and a hectoring woman who works in an amusement park dunk tank gets under the skin and stays there.

Stanley Kramer produced The Sniper and even the social consciousness material he’s known for shoehorning into his movies plays here thanks to Richard Kiley, who sells the hell out of it in his role as a police psychiatrist.

Director Edward Dmytryk, behind the camera again after his Hollywood 10 jail term, subverts audience expectations in the tense climax and makes excellent use of the against-type Adolphe Menjou as Lieutenant Frank Kafka (?!?), the weary detective on the killer’s trail.

Best of all is the location work in San Francisco. There’s a direct line from The Sniper to Dirty Harry to David Fincher’s Zodiac. A hellish trifecta if ever there was one.