“Stop me — Find me and stop me. I’m going to do it again.”
Edward Dmytryk was an outcast. Blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten, the Oscar-nominated director was jailed for his Communist ties in 1951 and forced to throw himself at the mercy of the HUAC. After he agreed to name names, Dmytryk returned to a Hollywood whose only response was a cold shoulder. He was vilified by both the right and the left. The press never missed an 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 Dymytryk was able to claw his way back to the surface. By that point, however, the sting of isolation had already taken its toll, and there is no better testament to this than his 1952 comeback The Sniper.
The Sniper actively works against the sentiment of must docu-noir films. “High among police problems is that of the sex criminal,” states the pre-credit scroll, adding that “Adequate and understanding laws do not exist” and “Law enforcement is helpless” when it comes to providing them with proper care. It’s a bold stance to take in a studio film, especially coming from a former commie, 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 see our outcast, Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), already preparing to commit murder. He meticulously loads his rifle, and takes aim at the couple quietly necking outside of his apartment window. But when the moment comes to pull the trigger, he hesitates. The perverse gleam in his eye, one that viewers had previously seen in serial killer films like He Walked by Night (1948) and Dial 1119 (1950), melts into a look of utter 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 solution. He contacts a doctor, attempts to commit himself to a local hospital, and even goes as far as to burn his trigger hand on a stovetop. The latter plays out in unnerving detail, with the low camera angle capturing every wince of pain on Miller’s face. These attempts are curtailed, however, when he meets a flirtatious singer named Jean Darr (the always manipulative Marie Windsor). Encouraged by their banter, Miller quickly discovers that Darr already has a suitor, and is sent over the edge and back into the vice grip of his demons.
The murder of Darr, as she exits a nightclub, provides the film with its breaking point. Miller’s rifle sends her body smashing through a glass display case, in a scene that should have us crying out on Darr’s behalf. And yet, it is Miller, guilty as he may be, who still clings to our our pity like a virus. He’s visibly shaken in the aftermath of the shooting, and the film makes note of this through his modus operandi — he uses the sniper rifle not as a means of preference, but as an excuse to distance himself from his shame, to retreat into the safety of anonymity.
Dmytryk structures the rest of the film as a cruel game of cause and effect: the more insensitive and indifferent people are to Miller, the more violence he commits against women. In one particular instance, Miller stumbles upon a group of kids playing stickball. A ball gets hit his way, and he tosses the ball back in. Come to find out, his assistance actually mucked things up, as one jaded player puts it: “It’s all your fault! Why don’t you leave us alone and go play your own game!?” (Coincidently, the player is a little girl). It may not be especially mature, but this breaking of Miller’s already-fragile psyche ranks among noir’s most mean-spirited moments.
Also worth noting is The Sniper’s use of San Francisco as a character in the film. Working from a relatively tight budget, Dmytryk and cinematographer Burnett Guffey take full advantage of their famous locale, and explore every crevice and curving alleyway that the city had to offer. This is especially notable in the nighttime sequences, where Dmytryk’s emphasis on angular streets make it seem as though San Francisco is practically complicit in Miller’s killing spree.
As Miller, Arthur Franz is chillingly effective. He imparts a likability to the character through his good looks and wholesome manner, one that’s tough to shake even when he’s in the throes of violence. At times, he comes off practically naive, like a little boy still seeking validation from those around him. 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 play into some grand cat-and-mouse narrative, but rather to extend his need for validation — he wants Kafka to know that he’s doesn’t condone his murders either.
Scenes where Miller is alone or trying to curb his killing spree are played with little regard for looking pathetic in front of the viewer — Franz fully commits, and the results are often so visceral they can be tough to sit through. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s fleeting moments; as the police surround him, he meets his fate not with resistance, but a single tear of relief. A single, knowing tear. It’s over.
Largely overlooked since its release, The Sniper still manages to provoke and shock in equal measure. By humanizing his outcast, Dmytryk’s film not only served as the inspiration for the nihilistic masterpiece Taxi Driver (1976), but expanded the breadth of where noir could go heading into the 1950s. A
TRIVIA: Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese provided the DVD introduction for The Sniper when it was released as part of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Collection.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir enthusiast 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.