The Sniper (1952)

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*. Eddie Muller, providing the DVD commentary for The Sniper, nicely summarizes two of its main claims to fame. It’s “really one of the very first serial killer movies and it’s interesting to note that it was a very empathetic and sympathetic portrayal of the subject.”
*. While I’m at, I’ll give its other source of special interest, which is the location photography in San Francisco.
*. I’ve mentioned before (in my notes on Where Danger Lives) that I don’t think of San Francisco as a noir town. Muller, who wrote a book on noir and grew up there, would probably have a different opinion. My feeling, however, is that The Sniper isn’t really a noir picture. This has less to do with its subject matter or the way that it’s shot as it does with its message. It’s an idealistic movie, with little of the engrained cynicism of noir. The scene in the mayor’s office is really the only flash of cynicism, and it’s presented in a judgmental, negative light.
*. That idealism is sincere, but I think it works against the movie. In 1952 a serial killer was still seen as a social problem, making The Sniper into a message picture. It was produced by Stanley Kramer (who specialized in this sort of thing), and the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Edward and Edna Anhalt. The Anhalts had just won a screenplay Oscar for Panic in the Streets and would be nominated for this film, but I think their script here is deeply flawed.

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*. Some of its flaws are excusable. At the time this was quite a daring film, but they couldn’t have a sex killer enjoying killing people and we’re finally left in the dark as to Eddie’s motivations for declaring war on “womankind.” Muller can’t figure out the “incredible leap” that the homicide chief makes in even determining that these are sex crimes. But of course they couldn’t say or show much more than they did. I assume Eddie is lustful but impotent in some way, but beyond demonstrating how inept he is at picking up girls that’s as far as things could go.
*. The rest of the screenplay is quite stiff. The psychiatrist (Richard Kiley) is a righteous blowhard, and Muller says he “might as well be wearing a sign saying ‘I am the conscience of the screenwriters and the producers’ around his neck.”
*. The psychiatrist as hero, however, was big in the 1950s. He’d show up again in movies like The Three Faces of Eve and Suddenly Last Summer. I think this is a profession that has fallen off its pedestal in our own time. Today a psychiatrist is more likely to be presented as an irresponsible pill pusher.
*. For all their research, however, I also had problems with the big speech the Anhalts give the psychiatrist in the mayor’s office. In the first place, he says the “legal definition of insanity” goes back to “an old English law, a law passed when they were still burning witches.” The laws he is referring to are known as the M’Naghten rules, which arose from a British case of 1843. They were not still burning witches in 1843.
*. Then there is the matter of Albert Fish. Apparently the Anhalts were inspired to write the screenplay based on their research into the crimes of Fish, but Fish was a totally depraved old man whose crimes (including cannibalism) had almost nothing in common with those of Eddie Miller in this film. Furthermore, the psychiatrist says that a judge of the supreme court held that Fish “undoubtedly killed at least fifteen” victims: “He was executed for one but sixteen were dead.” I don’t know where this information is coming from. Fish is known to have had three victims, and is suspected in the deaths of a half-dozen more. Yet Muller on the commentary piles on, saying that the psychiatrist is “soft-pedalling” Fish’s crimes because “there are stories that his victims numbered in the hundreds.”
*. In all of this Muller has to admit that director Dmytryk “couldn’t find a way around the pedantic nature of the screenplay.” In particular, the police-procedural stuff (the police chief lecturing his team, the meeting with the mayor at his office, the speech by the psychiatrist during the same) is deadly dull.
*. There are a few great sequences in here — Eddie burning his hand on the stove, going crazy at the amusement park, and shooting the man on the tower — but these all involve the killer. The rest of the movie drags.

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*. And it’s the script that’s at fault. Nothing the police do is of much use. When they show up at the murder scene in the park we’re given a background chorus of voice meant to show us how upset the public is getting at the fact that the killer hasn’t been caught. The voices say: “Why don’t you do something, earn your money!” “Ah, they’re always there after it happens.” “Getting so you can’t even go to a park on a Sunday.” “Some police force!” This sounds every bit as tired and generic typing it as it does listening to it in the film.
*. How cute is it that the owner of Alpine Cleaners & Dyers is a guy named Mr. Alpine?
*. How cute is it that the lead detective, played by Adolphe Menjou, is Lieutenant Frank Kafka? Though note that in one scene he is clearly addressed as Tom Kafka. I wonder if they changed it during shooting at some point — figuring Kafka was bad enough without calling him Frank too — and then didn’t fix the continuity error.
*. There are a some things to like. The scenes I listed earlier stand out as memorable. The use of the San Francisco locations to emphasize the city’s verticality is also very effective, with numerous shots of people going up and down steps and countless overhead shots as Eddie looks down on his prey (later reversed as the police adopt the sniper positions on rooftops to hunt him).

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*. I also found it interesting how much development the script puts into the antagonism between the sexes. Though I wasn’t sure what the point of it all was. I mean things like the women coming out of the theatre and complaining about men, the doctor bandaging Eddie’s hand while telling him about the proper division of labour in a household (stoves are “strictly a woman’s business” so they can “do all the cooking”) and how they get you “coming and going,” the people arguing outside of Darr’s apartment (women can’t trust men any more, men can’t trust women), the landlady telling Eddie that she thinks mothers should teach boys to cook just as well as girls, the guys working at the cleaners complaining about their wives, and satirically suggesting they could provide a few names of “dames” the sniper could kill.
*. Is this meant to show that Eddie is only a more extreme representation of the eternal conflict between men and women? Does that make him more sympathetic, or less?
*. I like how Muller points out that twenty years later “Dirty” Harry Callahan would be hunting down another crazy sniper terrorizing the streets of San Francisco, and showing far less concern for the killer’s mental health. Does anything date like a message picture? I do feel sorry for Eddie at the end, but those tears look so fake.

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