Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Sniper (1952)

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The Sniper forms part of the Columbia Film Noir Classics I DVD boxed set. Whether this movie really belongs in a film noir collection at all might well be a matter for doubt. One thing that is not in doubt is that this is an extremely bad movie, albeit a fairly well-made bad movie.

The first worrying sign comes in the opening credits - the dreaded words A Stanley Kramer Production. If you’re anything like me your response to this will be to mutter under your breath, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” It’s a perfectly understandable response and the movie goes on to provide ample proof that sometimes prejudices are actually perfectly valid. And prejudices against Stanley Kramer movies are very valid indeed.

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Edward Dmytryk directed this film in 1952. It’s an early example of the Hollywood obsession with serial killers, an obsession that would become more and more tedious with every passing year.

Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) is a disturbed young man. He hates women. And he has a rifle. He likes to find a nice secluded spot where he can’t be seen and aim his rifle at women and pretend to pull the trigger. Eddie knows he has a problem. He has tried to telephone the psychiatrist who was treating him in prison but the doctor is on holidays. So he deliberately burns his hand. When he goes to the Emergency Room maybe he will get the help he needs. Surely they will recognise his act as a cry for help? Unfortunately they’re too busy in the Emergency Room treating sick people. It never occurs to Eddie that maybe the best way to get help might be to tell the doctor at the Emergency Room about his problem.

Pretty soon Eddie goes beyond just pretending to pull the trigger. He kills his first victim. Eddie is really upset about this. Can’t people see that he needs help? He sends an anonymous note to the police asking them to stop him. And he keeps killing.

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Lieutenant Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou) is a grizzled veteran on the Homicide Squad. He knows he’s dealing with a psycho but psychos are a bit out of his line. Luckily he can call on the police psychiatrist, Dr James Kent (Richard Kiley). Dr Kent is an Expert. Dr Kent knows the police are going about this all wrong and his frustration brings on the first of the movie’s speeches (there will be plenty more to follow). The gist of Dr Kiley’s long-winded speechifying is that this is a problem that could be solved if only the government could be made to realise what has to be done. If only more laws could be passed. If only governments were given greater powers. If only psychiatrists were given greater powers. Much greater powers. If  only lots and lots of government was spent and the country could then be turned into one gigantic mental hospital with the right people in charge. The right people being, naturally, psychiatrists like Dr Kent.

You keep waiting for Dr Kent to tell us that the killer isn’t really the guilty one, that society is to blame. And sure enough that’s exactly what he tells us.

Meanwhile Eddie keeps killing, and Dr Kent keeps giving speeches. Sometimes he gets tired so then Lt Kafka takes over the speech-making. Kafka knows instinctively that Dr Kent is right. After all Dr Kent is a psychiatrist.

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This is a movie that certainly has that Stanley Kramer signature. It reeks of Stanley Kramer. For Kramer this subject is just perfect for a Social Problem Movie. I’m inclined to suspect that Kramer rather than director Dmytryk was responsible for the faults of this movie. They’re the same faults you find in every other movie Kramer was involved with. The pacing is rather leaden but there again Kramer may have been more guilty than Dmytryk of wanting to pad the movie out with speeches. Edna Anhalt and Edward Anhalt who wrote the story and scriptwriter Harry Brown must take some responsibility as well although they may simply have been giving Kramer what he wanted.

The acting doesn’t help either. Arthur Franz tries to put as much angst as he can into the role. He does a lot of grimacing, which apparently means he’s suffering badly. It’s a slightly embarrassing performance. Adolphe Menjou seems rather subdued which may indicate that he was aware of just how bad the movie was going to be. Richard Kiley is extraordinarily pompous and irritating as the psychiatrist who wants to save the world if only someone would give him the sweeping and absolute powers he so clearly craves. It’s perhaps not fair to be too hard on Kiley. The dialogue he is given would have defeated a much better actor.

Just in case we haven’t yet got the message the ending pulls out all the stops to emphasise that Eddie is just a Victim Of An Uncaring Society. I imagine we’re supposed to be shedding tears although in my case it was more likely to induce vomiting.

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Despite all these flaws The Sniper does have some redeeming qualities. The movie was largely shot on location and Dmytryk makes superb use of the San Francisco locations and while cinematographer Burnett Guffey avoids the usual noir techniques he gives us some memorable visual moments and the claustrophobic feel of noir is certainly there. Dmytryk is generally very strong when it comes to using images to counterpoint the plot points, and he pulls off some impressive visual set-pieces. This was an A-picture and it has A-picture production values.

If you’re prepared to buy the movie’s line that poor Eddie is a victim of a wicked and callous society then you might feel it qualifies as film noir. If you’re like me and you see him as a vicious loser than you might be more sceptical of its noir credentials.

The DVD transfer is excellent. The extras include a commentary track from Eddie Muller. Muller has some interesting points to make about this movie and he does his best to sell it to us. He also once again takes the opportunity to browbeat us about the blacklist, a subject that really has been done to death by this point.

The Sniper is an object lesson in how to make a bad movie even when you have at least some of the right ingredients. It tries to bludgeon the viewer into agreeing with it whilst failing to deliver enough in the way of suspense. I suffered through the 88 tedious minutes of this movie but there’s no reason why others should suffer as I did. Take my advice and avoid this one.

2 comments:

  1. The most disturbing thing about this film for me was that Menjou was clean-shaven. The man was a great character actor, but visually he pretty much was his mustache. He was definitely trying to go against type here but was probably too old for the task.

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  2. Great review dfordoom. I like how you think. Government especially large federal bureaucracies create more problems and rarely solve any.

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