A Killer Stalks the Streets of San Francisco in Edward Dmytryk ‘s THE SNIPER (1952)

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You can currently stream THE SNIPER online at Watch TCM

A few weeks ago I finally caught up with THE SNIPER (1952) on TCM, which tracks the brutal crimes of a gun-wielding maniac stalking women on the streets of San Francisco. The film boasts an impressive pedigree that includes director Edward Dmytryk, producer Stanley Kramer, screenwriters Harry Brown along with Edna and Edward Anhalt, cinematographer Burnett Guffey and composer George Antheil but outside of screenings on TCM, it has been somewhat hard to see until recently thanks to a Columbia DVD release in 2009.

THE SNIPER is usually described as an atypical noir and although I’d previously seen the film mentioned in Michael Weldon’s indispensable Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film it’s most often cited in fim noir texts where it’s usually compared with gangster pictures or mentioned alongside Dmytryk’s early noirs such as MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and CORNERED (1945). The film has also frequently been compared with Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY (1971), which similarly took place in San Francisco and involved a gun-toting mad man but both films have a very different tone. I personally found Dmytryk’s film bone-chilling and more aligned with horror films than police procedurals. THE SNIPER may not look like a typical 1950s horror production when sized-up against other genre pictures of the period but many of the most celebrated serial killer movies that followed in its wake such as Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) and Peter Bogdanovich‘s TARGETS (1968) are undoubtedly indebted to it. Hidden beneath the film’s noir trappings and a surprisingly contemporary but somewhat heavy-handed social message, you’ll find a vicious little horror-filled thriller that explores the troubling crossroads of misogyny, madness and murder.

The film opens with some rolling text explaining to 1952 audiences that: “High among police problems is that of the sex criminal, responsible last year alone for offenses that victimized 31,175 women . . . Here, in terms of one case, is the story of a man whose enemy was womankind.” We’re then introduced to a young man named Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) who casually removes a sniper rifle from a dresser drawer and begins to lovingly caress and clean it suggesting that he has an erotic attachment to the weapon. The camera follows him as he walks to a window and takes aim at a smiling woman innocently walking home with her boyfriend in tow. For the first half of the film we’re plunged into his world giving us an up close and personal look at a deeply disturbed mad man with a penchant for beautiful brunettes (Marie Windsor, Marlo Dwyer, Etc.). It quickly becomes apparent that the killer has a problem with motherly, bossy and authoritative women particularly when they don’t give him the kind of attention he desperately craves and the film makes a point of illustrating this over and over again.

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We eventually meet a criminal psychologist (Richard Kiley) and members of the city’s police force led by Lt. Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou) who are trying to put an end to Eddie Miller’s bloody rampage followed by much discussion about male violence perpetuated against women and the inability of law enforcement to properly assess and assist those who suffer from severe mental illness. Unfortunately this only illustrates how little advancement has been made in the last 60 years. Anyone who watches the news will be able to easily spot the many uncomfortable similarities between the crimes outlined in THE SNIPER and more recent violent crimes, such as the murders that took place in Isla Vista California by another disturbed young man who decided to act out his frustrations with the opposite sex by buying a gun and going on a shooting rampage outside his college after brutally killing his roommates. It’s also suggested that Eddie could be suffering from severe war-related PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) due to his military background that has led him to violently act out. In the end the film tests our tolerance by asking us to empathize with the killer, who indirectly attempts to seek help throughout the course of the film, but we’re never forced to sympathize with his crimes.

The attempt to psychoanalyze the character of Eddie Miller is thoughtfully done and reminiscent of countless horror films that have tried to deftly explain the motives of a killer. But it’s the POV shots that allow us inside the murderer’s head that really transform THE SNIPER into a ghoulish movie. The film is extremely graphic and doesn’t shy away from showing the impact of violence on its victims, which was highly unusual at the time. The audience is left to uncomfortably squirm in their seat as the killer takes aim and fires at these beautiful women without warning followed by an unflinching look of their dead body slumping to the ground. And although there is no blood to be seen in the film, the first few murders are accompanied by shattering glass that resembles a fatal flesh wound. Watching Eddie Miller slink through the winding back alleys and slanted streets of San Francisco with his sniper rifle in hand is just flat out frightening. He resembles a modern day Jack the Ripper lurking in the city’s fog shrouded streets as he waits to pounce on his next victim. Dmytryk’s inspired vision of San Francisco uses the city’s angular hills, off-kilter buildings and abundant shadows to generate suspense and is reminiscent of popular German Expressionism techniques that can effortlessly set viewers on edge. This feeling is further enhanced by George Antheil’s occasionally jarring score that had me recalling various Bernard Herrmann soundtracks.

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This was Edward Dmytryk’s first film following his brief imprisonment as one of the so-called “Hollywood Ten.” He was freed after agreeing to testify against the Ten and identify members of the American Communist Party who were being harassed and prosecuted during the Red Scare that had engulfed Hollywood. Afterward Dmytryk found himself blacklisted but in his memoir Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten the director explains how Stanley Kramer helped him resume his career with THE SNIPER:

“He hired me when no other producer of substance was knocking on my door; he gave me full freedom with my films; and subsequently assigned me to direct the best and most popular film he ever produced (THE CAINE MUTINY; 1954). For me, he finally broke down the resistance to blacklisted filmmakers, and he opened the way to a career that no one else of the marked group could match and only a couple could distantly approach. And for all that, I have been ever grateful.”

All hyperbole aside, Dmytryk’s overstatement stresses how important THE SNIPER was in reviving his career at a time when many of his contemporaries were struggling to find work. There’s a lot of desperation in that quote and it reveals to me a man who isn’t particularly honest with himself. It also reads like a plea for acceptance and begs for our understanding but it’s insulting to the men and women who he left behind while he was busy naming names and taking hand-outs from Stanley Kramer. Statements like these have undoubtedly made it easy for many critics and film journalists to dismiss Dmytryk‘s post 1950s work but I think some of the directors best films were made following his imprisonment.

There’s a palpable sense of profound paranoia, lawlessness run amok, rage against social injustice and flat out despair to be found in some of Dmytryk‘s best post 1950 films including THE SNIPER, THE CAINE MUTINY (1954), WARLOCK (1959) and MIRAGE (1965) that I really appreciate. The filmmakers most interesting work during this period also frequently featured complex and fascinatingly askew female characters trying to assert their power such as Elizabeth Taylor’s mad southern heiress in RAINTREE COUNTY (1957), Carol Baker’s boozy sexually aggressive widower in THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964) and the entire female cast of WALK ON THE WILD SIDE (1962). In this regard THE SNIPER could be seen and appreciated as a kind of warning shot to audiences signaling the direction that Dmytryk‘s career would take over the next few decades. It would make a particularly interesting double feature with the director’s stylish adaptation of BLUEBEARD (1972), featuring Richard Burton as the bearded mad man who possesses an unhealthy desire to murder his wives.

7 Responses A Killer Stalks the Streets of San Francisco in Edward Dmytryk ‘s THE SNIPER (1952)
Posted By Lyndell : September 11, 2014 10:17 pm

Thanks for your riveting review. Many of us have favorite actors that were not part of the big star list; one of those for me was Arthur Franz. That, along with your perceptive review, means I will definitely try to see it. I never watch “horror” films, but a good noir keeps me interested. Thanks again.

Posted By johnnytoobad : September 12, 2014 3:00 am

Yeah, this is a great film which I enjoyed seeing at whichever year’s Noir Fest … (Needless to say in introducing the picture, the always jocular host Eddie Muller joked around about his name being only one letter removed from this very disturbing character!)

I see the parallels — especially in the incredible realism of how he slips through the cracks of the system — just barely … something which we seem to discover retroactively about each one of these serial killers — always when it’s a little too late

He goes into the ER with serious burns which the doctor can tell are self-inflicted — & when he makes it clear that he feels Miller needs a psych evaluation, Miller even seems more or less ready to go along with whatever … But then, tragically, the doctor winds up just getting too distracted with other people being brought in etc. — & lets Miller go just out of expediency … Just the sort of thing which seems to always happen in these cases …

Posted By MedusaMorlock : September 12, 2014 7:03 pm

I am also an Arthur Franz fan and for some reason have never sat down to purposely watch this movie…that I can recall, anyway. This great essay is sending me right to it!

Terrific post, Kimberly!

Posted By kingrat : September 12, 2014 8:39 pm

Thanks for writing about this genuinely disturbing film, Kimberly. Your linking it to horror films makes sense and probably explains why this is so much more upsetting than most noirs. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is sensational, such as the shot you included of the street going down and then up. I believe this may be part of the mind-boggling shot near the end which begins with a view of the sniper’s window, pans down the side of the building, and then widens out to include the whole neighborhood, down the street and then up the street again.

You could also link the talky and preachy explanation section of the film to the later THE MARK (1961), which makes its would-be child molester hero more sympathetic than we would be likely to accept today.

Another disturbing element is that a certain performer is killed off much earlier in the film than I expected. This might be another link to PSYCHO, although the victim in THE SNIPER didn’t have the star power of Janet Leigh.

Posted By Richard Brandt : September 13, 2014 8:00 pm

I was lucky enough when I was going to high school and college in the 70′s to find TV stations that would run movies like this one. I remember one sequence of Franz running through the empty streets as if convinced he’s being pursued, his paranoia getting the better of him. Now you’ve got me eager to see this again.

Posted By AL : September 13, 2014 11:04 pm

my only complaint with this film is it’s misuse of the great Marie Windsor…

Posted By robbushblog : September 23, 2014 5:33 pm

This has been in my Netflix queue for years. I must move it up.

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