The Sniper (1952)

The Sniper is a 1952 psycho assassin deranged youth sex-pest film noir, directed by Edward Dmytryk, written by Harry Brown and based on a story by Edna and Edward Anhalt. 

The story is one of psychotic misogyny and the possibility of reform, as the police psychologist played by Richard Kiley, argues for treatment over incarceration and the death sentence.

The killer is an arch anti-woman boy with issues galore, a difficult thing to express on screen in 1952. That it is achieved soberly and without camp or cliché is testament to the cast and crew of The Sniper.

The film features Adolphe Menjou, Arthur Franz, Gerald Mohr and Marie Windsor, and is most notable of all perhaps for its fine San Francisco setting and photography.

The police have snipers too, and two decades before the rooftops of San Francisco became the hunting grounds of Dirty Harry Callaghan they are focused here on a mixture of police procedural, sensational woman-hating, and urban surveillance by both police forces and forces of psychopathy.

Dark struggles with the urge to kill — Arthur Franz in
The Sniper (1952)

In November 1947 Edward Dmytryk who was at the time a young contract director at RKO, and nine others were summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to answer questions about any association they may have had with the Communist Party. With a plan to present a united front, the Hollywood Ten argued their Firstt Amendment rights, and in a manner of speaking cocked a snook at the inquisitors.

The ten men were cited for contempt of Congress and all fired from their respective studios, and all ten were handed prison sentences of six months to a year. 

Marie Windsor in The Sniper (1952)

A couple of years under the Hollywood blacklist cloud, Edward Dmytryk returned to the process of noir with this low-budget film for producer Stanley Kramer, shot on location and in a self-consciously realist style, very much in the mode of The Naked City (1948), a look which was still making waves.

However — Edward Dmytryk, who had left the Communist Party in 1946, distanced himself from his fellow defendants in front of a second HUAC panel and thereafter named names — twenty six in total.

A killer stalking women in The Sniper (1952)

This panel took place on April 25, 1951and occurred after Dymytrk had served six months in a West Virginia prison.  He told the panel he was rehabilitated and didn’t intend to “be a martyr for a cause I don’t believe in.” He then went back to directing at the major studios, eventually making such blockbusters as The Caine Mutiny and The Young Lions before retiring in 1976. Edward Dmytryk died in 1999. He was 90.

Marlo Dwyer in The Sniper (1952)

“I didn’t have a choice,” said Dmytryk, whose behaviour during the period is discussed in Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten and the documentary Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial. “The committee didn’t come to me, I came to them. That was a rock-bound prerequisite for getting clear of the blacklist.”

“I wanted to get the facts on the table before the future historians had their say,” said Dmytryk, still “a little tottery” after a spinal operation. “There was a lot of lying and dirt on both sides. There’s so much misinformation.”

When the HUAC committee first started to get snoopy, Edward Dmytryk — whose career had just taken off with the classic film noir hits Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Crossire (1947) — left the USA in 1947, and continued to direct in Europe. It was on his return that he was imprisoned for six months at a minimum-security facility in West Virginia. Here, he came to the decision to cooperate with HUAC. 

Some in Hollywood took it bad. Others of the Ten refused to speak to Dymytrk. French actress Jeanne Moreau refused to work with Dmytryk on A Walk on the Wild Side and  was replaced by Barbara Stanwyck. 

Screenwriter-director Abraham Polonsky lost twenty years to the blacklist and so perhaps understandably, also refused to talk to his fellow USC faculty member. Ring Lardner, the only other living member of the Ten, was described by Dmytryk as “a damn fool, but a nice guy. I gather from interviews he doesn’t speak too highly of me.” Lardner hadn’t spoken with Dmytryk in decades but was “curious to read his book.”

San Francisco line-up in The Sniper (1952)

Others were known to turn a cold shoulder too and Dmytryk believed he was denied an Oscar nomination for The Caine Mutiny because “some people phoned around, saying, ‘Don’t vote for Dmytryk.’ ”

Also there were the reporters and film scholars. “I can’t begin to tell you how unfair they’ve been,” he said.

As an entry in the psychopathic canon of the film noir style, The Sniper (1952) is an cold-ass certainty to please, weighed down with leaden earnest bureaucratic gubernatorial snip-cut middle-aged types with grimaces who are balanced with the street-active killer who for all his evil faults, prowls the streets as a lost soul, driven by desires he cannot name nor fathom.

Adolphe Menjou in The Sniper (1952)

Adolphe Menjou plays a cop named Frank Kafka (WHA?) who does not appear to be entirely on the case and yet manages to put together two pieces of information at a late point and successfully hunts down the killer. Richard Carlson's medical and psychopathic expert authority figure gives an out of place and time speech reiterating the opening blurb's theory that society has no effective system for rooting out the true psychos, such as this young man represents.

Predictable and conservative urban authority in The Sniper (1952)

Arthur Franz plays Eddie Miller, the eponymous dame-despiser on a spree. Miller begins his killing spree as a sniper by shooting women from far distances with an M1 carbine. Trying to be caught, he writes an anonymous letter to the police begging them to stop him. As the murders continue, it turns out that a psychologist played by Richard Carlson has the psycho-chops and super-social knowledge needed via criminal profiling techniques, to find the killer.

San Francisco in The Sniper (1952)

Perhaps there is an expectation of a violent shoot-out at the end of The Sniper (1952), but the donut doesn't always crumble right. The psychopathic conclusion of Eddie Miller is a meek surrender when the police burst in on him, a weeping boy cowering on a bedroom floor.

Easily exploited combinations of sex and violence in psycho-shocker cinema
The Sniper (1952)

Yet before that, with almost cool noir style, Eddie Miller calmly and rather dispassionately shoots women. However, when he is not on a rooftop with his carbine, aiming at a lady and feeling at one with the universe, Eddie is an emotional wreck.

When not on the hunt, Eddie Miller is a tightly compressed ball of rage waiting the smallest trigger — usually provided by a woman — to set him rolling. The best illustration probably occurs at the amusement park, where he goes from pitching baseballs with pinpoint accuracy at the trigger plate for the dunk tank to hurling them directly at the woman in the tank.

For the plain facts of the 88 Minute psycho — the running time of The Sniper (1952) — suffering from full-blown psychotic misogyny, caused by issues involving his mother in his childhood which are not described or visited.  He finally snaps and becomes a serial killer targeting brunette women under 30. The police psychiatrist Dr. Kent, as an early exemplar of criminal profiling, correctly identifies that the police should be looking for man with history of crimes of violence against women.

Urban surveillance in The Sniper (1952)

The Peeping Tom trope is certainly of use in this context. When the murders begin, the police call on the city's sex offenders to interview them. One of the offenders in the first batch is a peeping tom. It is watching his interview that convinces Dr. Kent that this is the wrong tactic. As he explains to Lt. Kafka, sex offenders stick to a particular type of crime, and they need to be looking for someone with a history of violence against women, not peeping toms.

Procedural elements make up the lighter side of the action, the normality to the madness. Probably about a half of the film shows the police manhunt, including laborious legwork and following lines of investigation that go nowhere. At the same time the City officials and the public are expecting results. 

City of safety in The Sniper (1952)

Eddie Miller in The Sniper (1952) is something of a reluctant psycho, and knows that what he is doing is wrong but can't stop himself. The night before he commits his first murder he deliberately burns his hand on a hotplate in an attempt to have himself committed to a psych ward. This nearly succeeds, but a wave of patients from a major accident causes the doctor to forget about Eddie. After the murder, Eddie sends an anonymous note to the police begging them to catch him before he kills again.

The psychopath in film noir is a solid creation of the style. Representations of psychopaths in film noir were not entirely created to offer a complete understanding of psychopathic personalities. These characters were certainly caricatured as sadistic, unpredictable, sexually depraved, and emotionally unstable with a compulsion to engage in random violence, murders, and destruction, while often presenting with a series of unusual mannerisms, such as giggling, laughing, or facial tics, often creating long-lasting and quite unreal tropes.

A change however occurred in 1957 with the arrest of Ed Gein in Plainfield, Wisconsin. Because of the attention this received in America, the portrayal of psychopaths in film was rerouted out of the classic film noir periods into an almost separate and exclusive film genre — horror.

 The classic film noir years were great news for psychopaths:

  • Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)
  • This Gun for Hire (1942)
  • Phantom Lady (1944)
  • Gaslight (1944)
  • The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947)
  • Brighton Rock (1947)
  • Kiss of Death (1947)
  • Born to Kill (1947)
  • Raw Deal (1948)
  • The Dark Past (1948)
  • White Heat (1949
  • The Violent Hour (1950)
  • Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)
  • Highway 301 (1950)
  • Where Danger Lives (1950)
  • Gun Crazy (1950)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)
  • The Sound of Fury (1951)
  • M (1951)
  • Angel Face (1952)
  • Stolen Face (1952)
  • Beware, My Lovely (1952)
  • The Sniper (1952)
  • The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
  • The Big Heat (1953)
  • The Night of the Hunter (1955)
  • A Kiss Before Dying (1956)
  • The Killer Is Loose (1956)
  • Party Girl (1958)
  • The Lineup (1958)
  • Cover Girl Killer (1959)
  • Psycho (1960)

The Sniper (1952) Media Index at IMDB

Meet Some Movie Psychos at Online Library

The exploits of real-life psychopaths and serial killers during the 1960s and 1970s led to an increasing amount of clinical information about killers of this sort, and films began to sensationalise the ritualistic and misunderstood aspects of murder finally developing the slasher film which consisted of a recurring idiosyncratic villain with a signature, MO, weapon, and visual appearance — often a distinctive mask — with the story being the sequential killing slaughter of innocent adolescents in a variety of spectacular and grotesque ways.

The plea for tolerance at the opening of The Sniper (1952) could be misinterpreted. It was not unusual for films of this historical period to open with an earnest political, social and of course moral message — two of the best examples may be Highway 301 (1950) and The Phenix City Story (1955) — both of which feature distinct and live action messages.

Tearful conclusion in film noir Arthur Franz in The Sniper (1952)

A plea for tolerance in the case of The Sniper is an extremely liberal view to take of a killer of innocent women, even if he has been presumably trained in his elite killer craft by the government. The information shown at the head of The Sniper is somewhat different in that it asks that we understand the killer — a short lived trend perhaps? What would The Silence of the Lambs (1991) be like with a message delivered before the credits that society should be better caring for psychopaths, and treating rather than criminalising them?

This is the liberal message of The Sniper. Richard Kiley explains it once more to the City Officials and they frown miserably and conservatively —  but there can't be any equivocation about these title cards. The cards persist as an apology for the gratuitous violence of film noir — which as it turns out is not gratuitous if you preface it with something like this — while also technically taking the fun out of the visual thrills and spills and fears of killing, which are part of the 88 minute movie experience. 

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