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.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)

Oh my God. Has there ever been a more oversexed, overheated, overproduced, overacted movie than Duel in the Sun? With phantasmagorical three-strip Technicolor and shouting-to-the- rafters dialogue making it look every inch the fever dream of amphetamine-addicted producer David O. Selznick, Duel in the Sun was intended to top his previous epic Gone with the Wind

Instead, the huge, grossly-expensive (almost $100-million when adjusted for inflation), two year-long production is still considered one of the most harebrained movies from Hollywood's "golden age." Director King Vidor handles Selznick's risible script with the same anvil-like touch that he would bring to The Fountainhead three years later. Vidor, by the way, was one of six directors who helmed Duel in the Sun during its lengthy inception -- or is it ejection? -- including Selznick, who, in a rare moment of lucidity, fired himself. As for the acting, there's so much ham on display that it's probably banned in Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods.

The tale of a young, half-breed trollop who causes havoc between two brothers and their racist father, Duel in the Sun intends to be spicy but winds up being tasteless. It would have fared better as a low-budget RKO black & white programmer as originally intended, but once Selznick got his Oscar-winning paws on the project, all bets were off. 

Warning: staring at this sun on a high-def
TV for 10 straight minutes can cause
permanent eye damage.
The movie announces its intentions to epicdom (a word I just made up) with a 10-minute instrumental prelude by Dimitri Tiomkin, which never manages to string together more than three interesting notes at a time. 

The difference between "prelude"
and "overture" is 7 minutes.
Just as it comes to a thudding end, and you're settling in for, you know, a movie, the voice of character actor Reed Hadley announces, "Ladies and gentleman, the overture to Duel in the Sun!" -- followed by three more unmemorable minutes of the Selznick Studio orchestra sawing away while Hadley describes the movie you're about to see. Show, don't tell! 

Then that's followed by the credits, and that's followed by a magniloquent prologue spoken by Orson Welles (presumably to make it sound classy) before the movie finally kicks in. I guess Selznick had to do something to make it seem as long as Gone with the Wind. (Without the music folderol, Duel in the Sun runs only a little over two hours.)

Now we know where Elvis Presley got his sneer.
If Duel in the Sun was Selznick's attempt to turn his then-mistress, Jennifer Jones, into another Vivian Leigh, he should have spent more time on his shrink's couch and less time popping bennies. Wearing dark "Injun" make-up, Jones instead resembles a drunken Emirates Airline stewardess. And rather than being sexy, as was Selznick's intentions, she's actually seriously sluttish, admitting, "I'm trash like my maw!" A moment later, upon reflection, she writhes on her bed shouting, "Trash, trash, trash, trash, trash!" Yeah, like the script, script, script, script, script!

"After we do the nasty, I'm going out to kill
a mockingbird."
Anyone familiar with the stolid Gregory Peck of To Kill a Mockingbird will be shocked by the horny, violent sociopath presented here. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock's multidimensional bad guys, Peck's Lewt McCanless is a rotter through-and-through, licking his chops like a hungry wolf eyeing a defenseless lamb -- in this case, Jennifer Jones' Pearl Chavez. As for Pearl, it winds up being one of those I-hate-you-so-much-I-love-you relationships that always work out real well in the end. (Note: that was delivered with a heavy dose of irony.) If nothing else, Peck appears to be having the time of his life playing a heel for a change, far looser in Duel in the Sun than anything else he ever made, even if he is more cartoon than human. 

Joseph Cotten is amused by Jennifer Jones'
attempt at catching flies with her mouth.

Jessie McCanles, Lewt's younger brother, hasn't got a chance with Pearl. While having pledged her love to Jessie, she's far more attracted to bad boy Lewt. Just to show you how low Pearl is, she  allows Jessie to enter her room just as Lewt is in there lighting up a post-coital smoke. (What's Apache for "bitch"?) Cotten is saddled with pity-me dialogue, but so underplays his part that he comes off better than most of his co-stars. (The only other actor in Duel in the Sun who avoids histrionics is Herbert Marshall as Pearl's father, and that's only because he's killed off after ten minutes.)

The good preacher takes a personal interest in
Pearl's salvation.
Yet despite Jones' and Peck's grandstanding, it's up to the old-timers to really pull out the stops. Walter Huston's brief appearance as a shady preacher proves that the actor knew kitsch when he saw it, and, as with his role as Doc Holliday in The Outlaw, plays it with outsized tongue in cheek. King Vidor probably didn't get the joke.

"I look like Hillary who?"
Nor did Vidor do poor Lillian Gish any favors as Lewt and Jessie's mother Laura Belle McCanles. Perhaps not having seen any Gish performance since The Birth of a Nation, Vidor appeared to have instructed her to telegraph her emotions by opening her eyes like manholes, dropping her jaw to the floor, and placing her hands on her cheeks whenever possible. Her final scene -- crawling from her bed to console her grumpy husband before dropping dead at his feet -- is perhaps the cruelest, most unfortunately-hilarious thing a legend like Gish ever had to suffer. Other than the rest of her scenes in Duel with the Sun.

Lillian Gish wipes away the
spittle from Barrymore's
line-readings.
But nobody -- no body -- overdoes it like Lionel Barrymore as Sen. Jackson McCanles, the family patriarch. Once a wonderfully subtle actor, Barrymore had by now settled comfortably into the wheelchair-bound lovable crank character that defined the latter part of his career. Under Vidor's direction, however, Barrymore crosses the divide between crank and bull undergoing a wide-awake vasectomy. Bellowing, bawling and roaring his dialogue like a one-man zoo, he officially becomes a self-parody in Duel in the Sun the way his brother John did in Playmates. But at least the latter was supposed to be a comedy.

At least you can see the (over)budget on the screen.
An impressive sequence featuring hundreds of cowboys charging down a steep hill and across the plains is still exciting (and today would be recreated with CGI). The psilocybin-like Technicolor is wildly vivid, with fiery red sunsets and gorgeous blue skies popping out of the screen, while Tiomkin's score never, and I mean never, stops. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review, "Oh, brother—if only the dramatics were up to the technical style!"

D.W. Griffith visits Huston and Barrymore
on the set of Duel in the Sun, and decides he got
out of pictures at the right time.
Thanks to the lurid promise of SEX SEX SEX, Duel in the Sun actually turned a financial, if not artistic, profit, becoming the second highest-grossing movie of the year. It would go down in history as being the first movie little Martin Scorsese ever saw -- such are legends made.

Love means never having to say you're
sorry after shooting each other to death.
Today, Duel in the Sun divides viewers. Scorsese, still a fan, believes it was ahead of its time. Everybody else thinks it's the work of a madman. But the best part -- the absolute icing on the cake -- follows the climax. Pearl and Lewt shoot each other a dozen or so times before dying lustily in each other's arms in the hot desert sun. Pull back, fade out... to five minutes of Exit music. Two hours and 20 minutes of non-stop score -- and I still can't remember a frigging note.

 


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