“Stop me — Find me and stop me. I’m going to do it again.”
By 1951, Edward Dmytryk had become persona (or director) non grata. Blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten in 1947, the Oscar nominee was jailed for his Communist ties and forced to throw himself at the mercy of the HUAC. After agreeing to name names, however, Dmytryk returned to a Hollywood whose only response was a cold shoulder. He was vilified by both the right and the left. The press took every opportunity to label him “informer” and “rat.” At the time, he was quoted as saying “They pretty much have buried me.”
It was only through a three-picture deal with producer Stanley Kramer that Dmytryk was able to dig his way out of his premature grave. But by then, the sting of isolation had taken its toll, and would go on to heavily influence the tone of his 1952 comeback film, The Sniper.
It should then come as no surprise that The Sniper defies the conventions of the period. “High among police problems is that of the sex criminal,” states the opening text, adding that “adequate and understanding laws do not exist” and “law enforcement is helpless” when it comes to offering proper care. It’s a bold stance to take in docu-noir (a typically pro-government branch of film noir), but the idea of humanizing a sex criminal– the very definition of an outcast– was nothing if not attention-grabbing.
As the film opens, we meet our outcast, Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), already preparing to commit murder. He carefully loads his rifle, and takes aim at the couple necking outside of his apartment window. Yet when the moment comes to shoot, he hesitates. The perverse gleam in his eye, one that viewers had previously seen in films like He Walked by Night (1948) and Dial 1119 (1950), fades into a look of disgust. Miller hastily shoves the rifle back in his dresser drawer, and tosses the key in a fit of shame. Inner-demons are practically bursting through his trigger finger, but in this brief moment of defiance, Miller earns our sympathy — he knows, as we do, that there is a serious problem.
It’s briefly alluded to that Miller has dealt with battery charges in the past, and he spends the first act of the film trying to facilitate a peaceful solution. He contacts a doctor, attempts to commit himself to a local hospital, and even goes as far as to burn his hand on a stovetop. The latter plays out with unnerving intimacy, as the low camera angle capturing every tortured expression on Miller’s face. These attempts are curtailed, however, when he meets a seductive singer named Jean Darr (the always mischievous Marie Windsor), discovers that she’s already spoken for, and falls back into a murderous fit.
Darr’s murder outside of a nightclub marks the breaking point of our main character. Miller’s rifle sends her body smashing through a glass display case and onto the floor with deafening silence. And yet, in the aftermath of this horrific action, he clings to our empathy like a cancer. He’s visibly ashamed, and the film makes note of this through his modus operandi: the sniper rifle. He uses it not as a means of preference, but as an excuse to distance himself from his guilt, to retreat into anonymity.
Dmytryk directs the rest of the film as a cruel game of cause and effect: the more insensitive people are to Miller’s issues, the more violence he commits against women. In one instance, Miller stumbles upon a group of kids playing stickball. A ball gets hit his way, and he happily tosses the ball back in. Come to find out, he actually ruined the game, as one jaded player puts it: “It’s all your fault! Why don’t you leave us alone and go play your own game!?” (the player is, in fact, a little girl). It may be juvenile, but this breaking of Miller’s fragile state ranks among noir’s most mean-spirited scenes.
Working from a relatively tight budget, Dmytryk’s camerawork is more energetic than in previous efforts. He and cinematographer Burnett Guffey take full advantage of San Francisco’s famous architecture, as they follow Miller through lesser-known areas and landmarks that have since perished (Admirers of the city will want to come for the scenery alone). The driving sense of paranoia, which afflicts both Miller and his victims, is also handled effectively during the night scenes, where angular streets and pitch-black alleyways make it seem as though San Francisco is practically complicit in his killing spree.
As Miller, Arthur Franz is so unwavering that at times he can be challenging to watch. In the aforementioned stickball fiasco, or his failed pick-up attempt at a bar, Miller’s humiliation is subdued and mannered to the point of perverse voyeurism. Additionally, Franz brings a naiveté to the role, like a little boy who is still seeking validation from others. As Police Lt. Kafka (Adolphe Menjou) tracks his movements, he leaves behind notes begging to be caught: “Stop me — Find me and stop me.” These aren’t meant to imply some larger cat-and-mouse game, but rather to extend his need for validation — he wants needs Kafka to know that he too finds his crimes unforgivable.
The search for validation comes to a head in the final scene. Having pinned down Miller’s location, Kafka and the police ready themselves for combat. Most films noir would’ve opted for a resolution via violent shootout, but Dmytryk, being mindful of his outcast, subverts our expectations one last time. Miller meets his fate not with resistance, but a single tear of relief. He goes quietly, knowing that he’ll never truly fit in. (Dmytryk’s own resolution would come two years later, when the film The Caine Mutiny restored his image.)
Largely overlooked since its release, The Sniper still manages to provoke and shock in equal measure. By daring to show a serial killer as a sympathetic human being, the film not only served as the inspiration for New Hollywood classics like Targets (1968) and Taxi Driver (1976), but expanded the psychological breadth of where film noir could go in the 1950s. A
TRIVIA: Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese provides the DVD introduction for The Sniper on the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Collection.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.