I've been looking forward to tonight's film noir since I first decided to do this series. One of the best of them all, directed by one of the genre's key architects:
I'll circle back to the director Ed Dmytryk at some length at the end of this post. For now, it's enough to say that three of the film noirs he directed in the 1940s (Murder My Sweet, Cornered, and Crossfire) established or embellished almost every convention of the genre. The Sniper, while by no means a perfect film, is the best of them all for me.
The Plot: Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) is a laundry delivery man with deep psychological problems. Every night he assembles the M1 carbine he keeps locked in a bureau in the room he rents and tracks women down the street - especially women with their lovers - through the sniper scope.
Eddie knows he is disturbed and agonizes over these impulses. When the urge to actually shoot the rifle is too powerful, he intentionally burns his hand on a hot plate. The doctor treating him in an emergency room suspects he might need psychological help and says as much - and Eddie agrees with him and pleads for help - but he becomes too busy and Eddie is discharged. The next day when he drops off the dry cleaning of Jean (queen of the B-movies Marie Windsor), a lounge singer, she flirts with him and offers him a drink. But when her boyfriend shows up, he is ushered out the back.
|Despite the lack of gore, her murder scene is still shocking some 6o+ years later.|
Miller tries to stop himself, but his impulses are now officially out of his control.
|When a bar floosie gives him her number and then rejects him when he begins to stammer - his complete inability to interact with women apparently not "licked" by his taking the toboggan ride down to serial killing - the cycle begins anew.|
|Also triggered by women on television. (This is why you never give your home address on-air, ladies.)|
The killings continue until his boss (also a woman) puts together the injury to his hand to a bandage left at the scene of one of the crimes with Miller's suspicious behavior and absences at work, and the cops converge on his apartment.
|The End. (The pace and plot of the film unfold much more gracefully than the above reads, of course. #Broadstrokes.)|
The Sniper was not the first movie to portray a serial killer, but it is arguably the first recognizable entry in what would later become a genre all of its own. Previous films that featured a serial killer (such as M or The Lodger) were, as film noir historian points out on the commentary track, more in the Gothic tradition. The Sniper eschews those sensibilities for something new: a psychological realism warning of a potential epidemic to come.
|It evens points the way to the Law and Order: SVU-style drama.|
Edward and Edna Anhalt spent years researching sexually-motivated crimes, largely misunderstood at the time. Their conclusion was that both the American public and the authorities sworn to protect them were wholly unprepared for the epidemic to come. There was something toxic brewing out there and it was only a matter of time before it inevitably erupted in the public sphere. They sifted through the backgrounds of convicted sex criminals, looking for common causes, triggers, experiences, etc.
|The police psychologist (Richard Kiley) is their on-screen stand-in. His ideas are/were way ahead of their time. Compare his speech here in 1952 (too long to quote here but trust me) to the police psychologist's in Psycho, eight years later.|
|Most of the authority figures we meet are contemptuous and clueless, leading the investigation further and further off course as the murders continue.|
|Neither is the "everyman" spare. The ignorance and casual indifference is overheard everywhere Miller goes. This isn't just some problem of isolated perverts and guns, in other words; the context is "us."|
All three aspects (the motivations of sex criminals, the confused response of authorities, Joe Six Pack making everything even harder) were the result of the Anhalts' research.
As mentioned here: "The Sniper ran into trouble with the Production Code office, Hollywood's censorship bureau, which was headed by Joseph Breen. According to an interview with screenwriter Edward Anhalt, 'We got a letter saying this film cannot be made. It violated section 27 paragraph 4 of the Code, which actually said perversion cannot be the subject of a motion picture. So I was appointed to go to the board and fight for it. I said 'This doesn't violate the rule at all, because it's not about perversion.' So he [Breen], furious at me, said, 'What are you talkin' about it's not about perversion? It's about a man who gets an orgasm from shooting women! That's not perversion?' I said, 'No, perversion would be if he got an orgasm from shooting men.' [laughs] And for some incredible reason they bought it, and that's how we got the picture made.""
Says a lot about the mentality of Hollywood and movie audiences of the time.
San Francisco, a frequent setting for serial killer movies over the years, is used to fantastic effect. Dmytryk lived in the city as a teen and knew just how to use it to maximize the terror of an unhinged killer in a crowded urban environment - with lots of angles and rooftops and fire escapes for film noir-y compositions - and Burnett Guffey knew just how to shoot it: with a long lens with fixed focal length to "flatten" things and compress distances in-frame.
Two sequences stand out as particularly masterful. First:
Near the end of the film, Eddie goes to the carnival. He freaks out the guy at the marksmanship stand, first by trying to whirl around and aim the gun at the lovers on the Ferris wheel, thwarted by its being chained to the counter. Then he makes his way to the dunking booth, where a girl in a bikini taunts the passersby to try and sink her.
|As her taunts get progressively nastier, Eddie hurls the baseball again and again at the target, egged on by the crowd.|
|But when he starts hurling the balls directly at the cage itself, frightening the girl inside enough so she screams, the crowd gets uncomfortable.|
The same violent release of his frustrations is playing out, this time before a crowd that, briefly, is on his side. Muller refers to it as probably the best scene in the movie. And he's probably right. It's either the Carnival Scene or:
The murder that seals Eddie's fate comes near the end of the film.
|As he tracks his intended victim on the street below, he is sighted by a steeplejack in the background -|
|who immediately begins yelling for the police.|
I probably could have screencapped every last moment of this scene, particularly the way the steeplejack plummets - one hell of a stunt - down the chimney after Eddie shoots him. His body splattering on the ground below is foreshadowed by his throwing a bucket of paint to the street to warn the people on the street of the sniper on the roof. (About as masterfully as you could convey such a fate in 1952.)
Much of the film calls on Arthur Franz to react, or look uncomfortable, for reasons that could never get past the censors. He does it quite well.
He's also easy to sympathize with, despite the horror of his crimes or any revulsion engendered by his motivations (left murky but still icky). He knows how deep his problem is and what he's capable of and tries, desperately, to get people to help him. Society's failure is, as ever, our urgent problem.
The most interesting casting, perhaps is Adolphe Menjou as "Lt. Kafka." (Awesome).
In his autobiography, It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living, Dmytryk wrote how he, producer Stan Kramer and the screenwriters Edward and Edna Anhalt had decided on this bit of offbeat casting. "As a run-of-the-mill police detective, Menjou shaved off his trademark waxed moustache, wore cheap suits and shoes, and was as far removed from the haberdasher's gentleman as we could reasonably get. Regardless of his extremist views, he had always been a fine actor, and he did an excellent job in our film. We were still at opposite poles politically, though neither of us, as far as I knew, was doing any warmongering. Menjou also received some criticism from his fellow-reactionaries - one of whom asked why he had agreed to work with me. 'Because I'm a whore!' he snapped. There always has to be a place in my heart for honesty."
|More on said reactionaries in a bit.|
|While we're here, that's Gerald Mohr, Old Time Radio's Philip Marlowe, as Menjou's partner.|
Marie Windsor was perfectly cast as the lounge singer and first victim. Again from Muller's commentary track: "they needed someone who was sexually intimidating but who was believably friendly. She's got the right figure and the big bedroom eyes."
|"Whatever it is that's bothering Eddie, she triggers it."|
GEORGE ANTHEIL AND EDWARD DMYTRYK
The score is just fantastic. Although Hedy Lamarr gets all the credit - and nothing against Hedy Lamarr, of course - Antheil co-created the spread spectrum technology that eventually proved indispensable to digital communications.
He was also a prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction. But beyond all that, this is one hell of a score!
Now, Ed Dmytryk.
"One of the average American’s greatest faults as a citizen is self-deception: the belief that, ideologically, a person is innocent until proven guilty. If you are too poor to furnish bail, you’re in trouble the moment the heavy hand of the law is laid on your shoulder, innocent or not."
Hollywood's self-mythologizing when it comes to the Blacklist is never-ending. It's rare, though, that we get any other perspective on the Hollywood Ten. If you're unfamiliar with the term, the Hollywood Ten were those directors and writers who were charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to answer whether or not they were now or had ever been a member * of the Communist Party. (Another member, Dalton Trumbo, was the subject of a recent biopic, which I haven't seen. I checked the imdb, though, and there's no credit for Dmytryk, so my interest in seeing it dampened somewhat. I'm sure I will eventually.)
* The oddly specific phrasing ("are you now or have you ever been") came about because the Communist Party had a rule where if anyone who was a non-Party member asked you officially if you were a member, you were instantly disavowed from the Party (presumably to be reinstated later) so that you could answer truthfully for the record.
After serving ten months in jail on the contempt charge, Dmytryk decided to answer the question he'd refused to answer for the House of Un-American Activities, in the affirmative, and name names. This act of "naming names" has been, as alluded to above, painted in only one fashion again and again in move after movie. Dmytryk's perspective:
"If I were going to be a martyr, I wanted the privilege of choosing my martyrdom, and making my family suffer to protect the American representatives of a foreign agency would certainly not be it. What thousands of confused liberals have believed since then was that one must allow a seditious Party to destroy one’s country rather than expose the men and women who are the Party. In other words, naming names is a greater crime than subversion. That’s what I call 'Mafia syndrome,' and I find no shame or indignity in rejecting it."
Dmytryk was, by any stretch of the imagination, a liberal. His entire motivation for joining the Party in the first place - as it was for many Americans in the 30s and 40s - was out of a belief that the common man was getting railroaded and starved by the rich. (Again, #Broadstrokes) He is not sparing of conservatives (such as John Wayne, who, Dmytryk writes, "never missed an opportunity to name (me) as the quintessential Hollywood commie, but never obstructed the re-establishment of (my) career" or Ronald Reagan).
Rest assured, in other words, if you ever pick up his memoir of the whole experience:
You get plenty of both-sides-bashing.
"I have not been able to visit the memorials to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, even at a distance (without) a feeling of bitter irony. (…) For those who choose to forget that even idols like Jefferson owned slaves and that it was the people of the world’s first democracy who condemned Socrates to death for speaking his mind (…) they are easy picking for any organization that promises immediate and total perfection. (…) the utopia they (both) idolize is, and always has been, a blighted area."
Dmytryk's career was re-established, in theory, by his publicly renouncing the Party and "naming names." But no one would hire him. On the so-called left, The Party made sure he was treated as an apostate, while on the so-called right, the American Legion (whose influence was considerable back then) made sure everyone knew once a commie always a commie.
There were shades of grey, of course, and one of them was Stanley Kramer, an independent producer who had a distribution deal with Paramount. He hired Dmytryk to direct The Sniper, and, eventually, The Caine Mutiny, and Dmytryk was back on track.
He was a studio director, alas, and did not survive the late-6os collapse of the studios. But for those of us who cheer at stories of people not getting railroaded by reactionaries, while their once-fellow-travelers get Oscar-Bait every other Academy Awards, at least his story has a happy enough ending.