Saturday, August 09, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Sniper (1952)

THE SNIPER (1952) tells the interesting story of the manhunt for a serial killer on the loose in San Francisco.

Arthur Franz plays the title role as Jerry Miller, a deeply disturbed man who hates women. He tries to stop himself from shooting them, going so far as to intentionally burn his hand, but the police are slow to put together clues and Jerry's rampage of terror continues.

It's an absorbing movie which, despite being made in the early '50s, in some ways has a modern feel, with many of the issues raised still relevant. The film is also a bit unusual in that at times its sympathies are disturbingly twisted, presenting the killer as the object of pity and some of the police as inept at best and cruelly stupid at worst. A scene where a police lineup is accompanied by sneering questioning and joking on the part of a police detective is disturbing, even though it's clear the people being taunted are lowlifes.

The press don't cover themselves in glory either, having unrealistic expectations of law enforcement, not to mention seemingly spending more time criticizing the police for lack of progress than providing information which might help solve the killings. (The press is finally redeemed near the end when a witness reads a key fact in the paper and alerts the police.) Even the public is handled uneasily, as dozens of people stupidly hang out their windows in the line of fire when the killer is cornered, distracting the police from the business at hand.

Thematically, the film's depiction of a serial killer with uncontrollable impulses reminded me very much of the previous year's M (1951). Although the script doesn't play up the San Francisco setting in the dialogue, THE SNIPER makes very effective use of its setting, just as M utilized wonderful location shots of Downtown Los Angeles. The cable cars and Coit Tower are among the locations which appear in THE SNIPER.

The setting and cast are what make this film especially enjoyable. A pair of hardworking detectives played by Adolphe Menjou and Gerald Mohr come off best among the police on the case. The casting of Menjou against type as a rumpled detective, without his trademark mustache, was inspired. I know Mohr's work best from his appearances as one of the most frequent guest stars on the TV Western MAVERICK, and it's nice to see him here as a dedicated public servant. Frank Faylen plays their boss.

Film noir goddess Marie Windsor brightens the film for several minutes as Jean Darr, a bar pianist who has the misfortune to cross paths with Eddie. The multitalented Richard Kiley, someone I deeply admire, plays a psychiatrist campaigning to get treatment or incarceration for diagnosed sexual predators.

Interesting faces pop up regularly. I spotted Jean Willes walking down the street near the start of the movie, and Wally Cox plays a dry cleaning employee. Good old Charles Lane is a drunk in a bar annoying Marie Windsor. Byron Foulger, who seems to turn up in everything I watch lately, is part of a police lineup. Karen Sharpe, who would later marry the film's producer, Stanley Kramer, has a bit role.

THE SNIPER was directed by Edward Dmytryk and filmed in black and white by Burnett Guffey. Edward and Edna Anhalt were nominated for the Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story; the script was by Harry Brown. The movie runs 88 minutes.

THE SNIPER is available on DVD in the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Vol. 1 set. The Columbia Pictures noir sets released by Sony are beautiful prints and highly recommended.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always liked this thriller. A big part for Arthur Franz and he handled it well.
As you say, always good to see Marie Windsor.

12:10 AM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

I really wasn't convinced by this one at all. It seemed very heavy-handed and manipulative and obvious (not surprising considering it was produced by Stanley Kramer). More a Social Problem Movie than a thriller, with all of the negative features of that unfortunate genre.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Vienna, I only wish Marie Windsor had had a larger role! :)

Dfordoom, although I enjoyed it, I understand your point. I think your criticism is in line with my thoughts on the film's "twisted sympathies," where some of the cops were almost the bad guys and the criminal just some poor guy whose cries for help were cruelly ignored. Life is rarely completely black and white, but the perspective seemed out of balance.

Best wishes,

1:01 PM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

Thanks for the review Laura. I've been curious about this one but haven't gotten around to watching it yet. Sounds like my cup of tea.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have never seen nor heard of this film (it sounds very interesting)
-- one wonders why there isn't an effort to recreate films of this ilk.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Anders E said...

The ending is just so incredibly sad. Great, great noir.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Crocheted Lace said...

Agree with some comments that the sympathies were swayed to the killer while the police and newspapers leaned too far in the other direction. So the film lacks some balance, nothing new, and newer movies are often worse this way. Over all, the story and photography are great, and the acting is top notch.
Arthur Franz's performance is gripping and Menjou is brilliant. I think people don't remember now a days just how versatile he was. Rapid fire comedic dialogue, heartfelt romance, villain, compromised protagonist. He could do it all.

And a well known natty dresser! There was a great gag on a Jack Benny radio show, where his friends compliment him on his great new glamorous style. Benny replies "Thanks, I just bought Adolph Menjou's old clothes."

1:22 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Crocheted Lace, thanks for adding your take on the movie to the discussion!

Fun fact: for years my husband worked with Adolphe Menjou's grandson. :)

Best wishes,

2:25 PM  

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