Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Sniper (1952)

Sala-ampuja / Krypskytten. US © 1952 The Kramer Company. Originally distributed by: Columbia Pictures. P: Stanley Kramer. D: Edward Dmytryk. SC: Harry Brown - story: Edna Anhalt and Edward Anhalt. DP: Burnett Guffey. PD: Rudolph Sternad. AD: Walter Holscher. Set dec: James Crowe. M: George Antheil. S: Frank Goodwin. ED: Harry Gerstad, Aaron Stell. Technical advisor: William T. Whalen. C: Adolphe Menjou (police lt. Kafka), Arthur Franz (Eddie Miller), Gerald Mohr (police sgt. Joe Ferris), Marie Windsor (Jean Darr), Frank Faylen (police insp. Anderson), Richard Kiley (Dr. James G. Kent), Mabel Paige (landlady), Marlo Dwyer (May Nelson), Geraldine Carr (Checker), Jay Novello (Pete), Ralph Peters (Police Interlocutor), Max Palmer (Chadwick), Carl Benton Reid (Liddell), Bryon Foulger (Pete Eureka), Paul Marion (Al). Loc: San Francisco (Telegraph Hill, Francisco Street). Helsinki premiere:  28.11.1952 Tuulensuu - VET 36287 – K16 – 88 min. A KAVA print with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Tutteli Lindberg viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Carte blanche à Tapani Maskula), 7 May 2013

A solid psychological thriller with a mentally disturbed criminal as the protagonist. Arthur Franz gives a fine performance in the difficult role of Eddie Miller, a serial killer of young women. Eddie knows there is something terribly wrong with him. He actually tries to stop himself from evil deeds by burning his right hand. He tries to seek professional help, but everybody is too busy to even listen to him. He sends a desperate note: "To the police: stop me. Find me and stop me."

Beyond a crime story this is a story of loneliness, alienation, marginalization and mental disorder. Eddie remains a mystery, but we get glimpses into his childhood: "my mother never taught me anything". Eddie is a war veteran: that's where he has received his M1 carbine and that's how he became an expert sharpshooter. He assassinates his victims with one shot.

Critics have found the role of the police psychologist, Dr. James G. Kent (Richard Kiley), too didactic, but his appearance is a turning-point in the story and his advice really puts the police on the right track. Dr. Kent has also an insight in how these phenomena could be effectively prevented ("put these people away when they are first caught"), but the city leaders have nothing but scorn towards his ideas of preventive psychological care. "There's no motive. Perhaps the murder is the motive".

During the screening I was thinking about M (Fritz Lang), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock), The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese), and Targets (Peter Bogdanovich). I was also thinking about the Finnish Jokela school killer who would also have needed psychiatric help.

The movie has been shot on location in San Francisco, and it is full of interesting observation. The vertical dimension of the city is impressively utilized, and we often share the sniper's extreme viewpoints and angles. Burnett Guffey's cinematography, often in depth, is excellent. (The police chase on the rooftops and the glimpse of the Coit Tower also brought to mind a certain film by Mr. Hitchcock).

The basic approach is realistic, but the movie is fired by an alarmingly melodramatic score by George Antheil, and Edward Dmytryk returns to his 1940s expressionistic film noir inspiration from time to time. A striking shot is the one where the sniper sitting on the roof aims at a victim on the street while behind him at quite a distance a man climbing a huge smokestack notices him.

The performances are realistic. I did not immediately recognize Adolphe Menjou without his trademark moustache. He is good as the weary, patient police officer conducting his thankless job. It must have been strange for Dmytryk, who had served a prison sentence because of his political past and who had become an informer for the HUAC, to direct Adolphe Menjou, a leading activist in the HUAC hunt in Hollywood.

There is an interesting Elia Kazan connection. Matti Salo sees The Sniper as a sister work for Panic in the Streets, also based on an idea by Edna Anhalt and Edward Anhalt. Kazan and Dmytryk shared a similar fate with the HUAC, and Kazan cast Adolphe Menjou next year in Man on a Tightrope, in an equally interesting, downbeat performance.

 A well directed sequence is the one with Mrs. Fitzpatrick (Lilian Bond) whom Eddie has only seen on tv. The grief of Warren Fitzpatrick (Grandon Rhodes) of the loss of his wife and the mother of his children is tangible. Dmytryk shows good judgement in elliptic narrative.

Fine judgement is in evidence also in the conclusion where the sniper is under massive police siege in his own apartment. Against all expectations there is no gunfight, and the movie ends in an extreme close-up of Eddie's face in tears.

Dmytryk has also an eye for the telling visual detail for instance in the imagery of the gun, the bandage, and the baseball. The Sniper is a prosaic film, but in the scene where Eddie burns Jean Darr's gown in the oven I was thinking about Luis Buñuel (Ensayo de un crimen = The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz).

Unfortunately The Sniper is still a topical film, for Finland with our school killings, and for the USA with their battle for more sense in gun legislation.

The vintage print has been heavily used, and it is amazing to see the fine drizzle in the starts and the ends of the reels. I am grateful for the opportunity to see what I guess is close to the original lighting concept of Burnett Guffey.

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