Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Sniper

The most gripping movie I’ve seen in a long time is Edward Dmytryk’s “The Sniper” (1952), equal parts thriller, police procedural and a shattering look at urban loneliness and despair. It holds up extremely well.

Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) is a lost soul with a hangdog appearance, working days as a deliveryman for a laundry service. Having deep-seated issues in relating to women, Eddie is so starved for any kind of human companionship that in one scene he walks towards a group of kids playing baseball in the street. One can tell he’s eager to engage them in conversation; anything, even the tiniest bit of human connection would be sufficient for Eddie.

At night he looks out the window through his rifle telescope, imaging the people he is going to pick off with it. Eventually the fantasy becomes reality and he begins to kill people for real. Like a psychopathic killer in later crime dramas, he sends notes to the police, begging them to stop him before he kills again.

There’s a strong cast on hand here, including Adolphe Menjou (sans moustache) as the police Lt. Kafka who leads the investigation with the help of his sergeant (Gerald Mohr). Richard Kiley makes a strong impression as the psychiatrist who knows the sniper must be stopped, but hopes Eddie can be caught alive so he can be studied in the hopes of preventing future Eddie Millers.

The movie was produced by Stanley Kramer, and his well-known liberal bent is represented by the Richard Kiley character. Kramer produced quite a few really interesting and offbeat movies in the early 1950s, and this is one of the best. The ending may disappoint those looking for a bang bang finale, but the film is much better for the ending it has.

Shot on location in San Francisco, the movie is almost documentary-like in appearance. Shot by ace cinematographer Burnett Guffey with an emphasis on flat lighting, this is no slick, glossy Hollywood production but a lowdown and dirty crime drama. It reminds me of one of those great grim and gritty 1970s crime movies like “The French Connection” (1971) or “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973).

The cast can’t be faulted. Arthur Franz is excellent, making the sniper curiously sympathetic - sympathetic and pitiable, but not likeable. Franz plays Eddie Miller as a character one lit match away from becoming a lighted powder keg. This probably Franz’s most nuanced performance. One can tell how much he wants to be part of something, anything, but that contact is always just out of reach.

Menjou is great as always, and it’s surprising to see the dapper actor (one of the best dressed men in Hollywood) looking decidedly un-dapper in his rumpled suits and uncombed hair.

Also, I couldn’t help but wonder what the set was like. Director Dmytryk was a former member of the Communist party and one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to name names for the Hollywood Un-American Activities Committee. He was jailed for several months before agreeing to talk. Menjou was an avowed right winger who took great delight in telling the Committee everything they wanted to know. Did Menjou greet Dmytryk as friend or enemy?

Semi-Spoiler Paragraph: In a preview of “Psycho” (1960), the sniper’s first victim is leading lady Marie Windsor who is killed about 20 minutes in. It’s a pretty graphic and shocking scene, as are all the other sniper killings. Unlike some of her other crime film appearances, Windsor is very likeable here, and I can imagine her early demise took a lot of viewers by surprise. But maybe not. I watched the trailer on the DVD and it shows her getting shot, thus proving that even in 1952, too much information was given away in the trailers. End spoiler.

For movie fans, there are a lot of familiar faces on hand. Charlie Chan’s Number Two Son Victor Sen Yung has an unbilled appearance as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. Sidney Miller shows up as a hospital intern. I’m so used to seeing him in all those Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals, that his appearance was a nice surprise.

There’s a black humor sequence where the police bring in all the perverts and sex fiends for a line-up, and the cop reading the charges can’t resist making snide comments on them to the delight of the cops in attendance. Show this scene to someone who thinks a 1952 Hollywood movie is all sweetness and light and wait for that opinion to change. The suspects in the line-up are a couple of well-known character actors who I’ve seen countless times but I don’t know their names.

Speaking of contemporary, there’s a dynamic score by Kramer’s favorite composer at the time, the controversial George Antheil, the so-called Bad Boy of American Music. Antheil’s contribution is invaluable, especially in one scene where the sniper waits to kill his next victim. We see her through her apartment window and the music is nothing more than a sustained chord, played for over 30 seconds with no variation. It’s standard practice now but very unusual for the time.

Antheil was smart enough to use this technique sparingly. Today, sustained chords are seemingly the entire score, to the extreme detriment of the material it is suppose to support. End of rant.

“The Sniper” is part of a gem of a DVD box set from Sony Home Entertainment called Film Noir Classics Vol. 1. Other titles include: Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat” (1953); “5 Against the House” (1955); “Murder by Contract” (1958) and “The Lineup.” (1958). That’s enough mean city streets mayhem to satisfy anyone.


ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, how have I missed The Sniper? It sounds wonderful. Your description has intrigued me. I too find myself wondering how on earth Dmytryk and Menjou could even be in the same room together! I'd love to have been a fly on the wall there! Great post!

Caftan Woman said...

The sight of Arthur Franz's friendly face in an old movie usually warms my heart. "The Sniper" turned my world upside down. As you say, a worthy cast in a most interesting movie.

I found it disheartening that at this point in his career Victor Sen Yung was relegated to uncredited bits. I had hoped it wasn't his back I recognized in the restaurant.

Kevin Deany said...

Becky: I hope you get a chance to see it. I think you would like it.

Hi Caftan Woman: Yep, that was him and he had a lot of uncredited bits during the 1950s. But he also had a lot of credited TV work too, so he was kept pretty busy. He has a good role in "She Demons" (1958), a guilty pleasure of mine.

Classicfilmboy said...

Wow, this sounds like a fascinating movie. Yet another one for the list. This year you've reviewed some great films that I haven't heard of before, so I am learning a lot from your posts. Thanks!

The Lady Eve said...

I'm another who hasn't seen "The Sniper"...but...when I attended opening night of the San Francisco Noir City festival recently, the evening opened with a riveting montage (by Serena Bramble) of many, many noir (and crime and mystery) films set in San Francisco...included were clips from "The Sniper" - didn't realize what film it was till I saw the pix posted here. Now I know what to look for. Thanks, sounds very interesting...
Here's a link to montage...

doctor sabelotodo said...

great film...really a must see for the unique blend of suspense and character development...poor Arthur Franz...a good actor relegated to the trash heap of B movie fame!!!

Page said...

Kevin, This sounds like it's right up my alley! Another great review and one that has me interested in finding this one.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks to all for writing.

I had never seen it either, and was really pleased at how much it held my attention. There's always new good movies to be discovered.

Archdude said...

Read the review and now I will have go and see it. I remember Mr. Franz from all of the old Perry Mason Episodes I have watched over the years.
very good review as usual.

Robby Cress said...

I love anything that Stanley Kramer is involved with. I still have to see this film though. They mention it in the special features on another Kramer film, "The Caine Mutiny" which recently sparked my interest to seek out "The Sniper." Sounds great!

♥ ANDRIANA & ANDREA ♥ said...

wwooooww! Nice!