Tuesday, September 9, 2014

THE SNIPER (1952)

Long before he was the producer of "message" movies both treacly (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, A Child is Waiting) and self-consciously serious (Ship of Fools, The Defiant Ones), producer Stanley Kramer made a film noir "message" movie, The Sniper. And instead of tackling the issues of race, religion or Nazis, The Sniper took on psycho killers. Don't tell me that doesn't sound better. 


"No, I'm not Shepard Smith!"
Terrifically directed by Edward Dmytryk, The Sniper follows a week or so in the life of ex-con Eddie Miller (played with the perfect combination of angst and pathos by Arthur Franz) a guy who's had it with women abusing him, even if it's all in his mind. I mean really had it, like shooting all brunettes who cross his path. Since this is taking revenge a step too far, the public and the press start pressuring Police Lt. Frank Kafka (what a name) to catch this guy before he starts turning his rifle on blondes. Now that would be a loss.

But this being a Stanley Kramer production, we learn early on that Eddie Miller's problem is a lack of proper psychiatric treatment. Eddie, you see, wants to be locked up. He calls his old prison shrink for help, but the doc's analyzing a nine-iron at the golf course. He even deliberately burns his hand on a stove as a failed signal to the e.r. doctor that there's something wrong with him. What's a rejected guy to do but keep killing women?

Dr. Kent tries to figure out if chopsticks
are phallic symbols.
While the local yokels are readying the hot seat for the still-unknown sniper, police shrink Dr. James Kent has other ideas. What this boy needs, he says, is help. In fact, he insists, that's what all these psychos need before they go shooting women from rooftops. Dr. Kent being played by Richard Kiley, the original star of Man of La Mancha, you expect him to sing "The Impossible Dream" to get the public on his side. 


A fastball thrown by the
screwball.
Lt. Kafka initially doesn't buy into Dr. Kent's theories, but is soon won over when he receives reports of a fellow at a carnival who's a little too eager to throw fastballs at a woman in a dunking cage -- one of the many creepy moments found in The Sniper. Seems Eddie Miller, who has already become a suspect, was known to be fast with the balls in his day. If only he joined the majors -- then he'd be shooting up steroids instead of dames.

"Bet you don't recognize me
without the 'stache, eh, kid?"

Perhaps Stanley Kramer knew that the idea of an almost-sympathetic killer was going to be a tough sell. Why else would the world-weary, seen-it-all Lt. Kafka (I laugh every time I write that name) be portrayed the usually-debonair, audience-friendly Adolphe Menjou? Minus his dashing mustache for the first time since puberty, Menjou can't completely disguise his urbane demeanor -- he speaks too articulately for a cynical cop -- yet is great fun to watch because he's playing against type. You almost expect him to break out a bottle of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, vintage 1889, when he finally captures Miller.

...while the cops say, "We're busy
working, bub."
Kramer, not surprisingly, lays on the "society is to blame" spiel a little thick now and then in The Sniper, starting off with a pre-credit prologue. Dr. Kent gets two soliloquys on the matter, while Lt. Kafka makes with the Freud routine eventually. Yet two women who set Miller off on his killing spree -- a woman slapping her young son, and Eddie's harridan of a supervisor at work -- are so hideous that you're sorry that he didn't shoot them instead. Next time, Eddie, choose your targets with better care. 


Edward Dmytryk and cinematographer Burnett Guffey make great use of the San Francisco locations, especially the shadowy nighttime sequences. One of their recurring visual motifs is Eddie Miller taking aim while normal life continues behind him, whether it's at a carnival sharpshooting gallery or on a rooftop. In a particularly startling moment, an elderly woman removing towels from an indoor drying line near a window reveals a police sniper on the next door roof, but doesn't notice him herself. The madness, Dmytryk seems to be saying, is so prevalent that people don't even see it anymore.

It's always important to keep on the lookout for familiar faces in old movies, and The Sniper is no exception. The legendary Charles Lane (left) appears briefly as a barfly annoying a lounge singer moments before she's killed by Miller. (That's noir queen Marie Windsor, co-star of Two Dollar Bettor in a small but important role.) The sympathetic intern in the e.r. is Sidney Miller, whom I immediately recognized as Warner Brothers' stock Jewish kid from 20 years earlier. You can see him when he was 18 years-old in the previously-discussed bootleg-toothpaste drama, The Big Shakedown. (His character names from those Warners' days include Sanford Nussbaum, Issadore Marks, Maurice Levy... and George Washington. That's comedy, folks.) 
 
It's a pity that The Sniper is pretty much ignored these days, especially compared to Kramer and Dmytryk's other 1952 production, the appallingly-overrated High Noon. To my narrow-vision eyes, he never made a better, tighter movie. (His rare venture into comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, crawls 3 hours and 40 minutes.)  If I have to be fed a message, let it be a quick, tasty one like The Sniper.

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To read about Two Dollar Bettor, go here.
To read about The Big Shakedown, go here.

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