Wednesday, December 1, 2010
The Sniper is an early example of Hollywood taking a stab at the kind of criminal/psychological analysis that is, today, a commonplace element of crime fiction. At the time, though, in 1952, this film's dead-on look at the psychosexual dysfunction of a killer must have seemed bracing and realistic, even if today its psychology seems strained and its examination of the subject superficial. The film focuses on Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), a man with some serious issues about women. The film's opening text offers up a message about sex criminals, and indeed Miller's sickness is explicitly compared, within the film, to that of rapists and other sexual predators and perverts. With that context established, the opening images of Miller assembling a sniper rifle immediately acquire a sexual subtext, and his use of that weapon to murder women becomes a form of symbolic rape from a distance for a man who's afraid of and disturbed by women, who simultaneously wants them and detests them. During Miller's first murder, director Edward Dmytryk, in one of the film's most shocking shots, zooms in for a closeup on Miller's hands, caressing the barrel of his rifle, wrapping his hands around the gun and running them up and down its smooth metallic length. The sexual subtext of the crimes, the sense that Miller is getting off on these women in the only way he knows how, couldn't be more blatant.
Dmytryk does an excellent job of staging the murders, establishing the creepy sensation that Miller is lurking in the shadows, watching and waiting. His first victim is the pianist Jean (noir stalwart Marie Windsor), a woman Miller knows as one of his customers from his job as a laundry deliveryman. When Miller visits Jean's apartment early in the film to drop off a dress for her, the two flirt innocently — or rather, Jean flirts with him, not suspecting that it's anything more than the casual banter that often passes between acquaintances when conducting this type of routine business. But Miller is a very damaged man, and it's obvious that he's attracted to Jean, and at the same time turned off every time she drops a hint of her lifestyle as a nightclub pianist, every time she hints at the men she knows. Windsor brings just a touch of her usual femme fatale persona to Jean, a few stray touches of regret and world-weariness, a shade of noir toughness in this otherwise normal woman. She has only a few scenes, and Windsor, typically, makes them count, makes this woman memorable so that her sudden death, which sets Miller off on a killing spree all around the city, will be all the more affecting.
The scenes of Miller stalking Jean, following her down shadowy streets to her club and then setting up with his rifle on a roof nearby, are interrupted by a brief scene inside the club, where Jean fends off a drunken admirer and banters with the club owner. The juxtaposition subtly connects the drunk, with his increasingly antagonistic behavior, to the killer waiting outside, who nurses his own even more violent hostility towards women. What's interesting about the film, particularly for its era, is how it pointedly brings the subject of attitudes about women to the surface. It seems like virtually everywhere Miller goes, he encounters someone who has something to say about women, and usually something negative or stereotypical. A doctor tells Miller that he should get married, that cooking is women's work, and Miller's landlady tells him virtually the opposite, that men should learn how to cook just as well as women. In a scene where Miller makes a phone call at a drug store, Dmytryk cleverly stages a miniature drama in the background as the couple running the place bicker over the guy's perceived flirtation with a customer. These kinds of prosaic details subtly comment upon and enhance the central story, and the way this scene places a whole story into the background of the shot is fascinating.
Later, Miller goes to a carnival and unleashes his hostility in a game where the object is to throw a baseball at a target to knock a woman into a tank of water. Miller becomes increasingly enraged and violent, knocking the woman into the water again and again with his perfect aim, but what's notable is that he's really only getting too into the spirit of the game, which seems to be based entirely on this kind of hostility, on the idea that guys will want to step up and knock the woman off her stool if they can. Miller's only more honest about it — and has a better aim than most. The film doesn't exactly explicitly question these kinds of attitudes, but they certainly come bubbling to the surface, often in ugly ways. There's an odd disconnect, for example, between the killer's attitude towards women and the joking tone of a scene where one cop teases his older partner about married life. Similarly, a scene where the police question a lineup of sex criminals, trying to find out if one of them is the sniper, is frankly just bizarre, as the interrogator adopts a blatantly comic tone, turning around to catch the reaction of his fellow cops as he delivers his one-liners about rapists and peeping toms. It's staged like a comedy routine rather than a real interrogation of dangerous sexual criminals.
If the film never quite resolves these tensions, it's at least obvious that the treatment of women, and men's attitudes about women, are at the center of this story. A subtle line is drawn between common ideas about women and Miller's extreme actions. Less interesting is the film's tendency towards blunt, pat psychoanalysis and preachy speeches, which become more common in the film's second half. At its best, particularly for its first half, The Sniper is a taut and tense psychological thriller that places the audience in uncomfortable intimacy with the dysfunctional killer. In the second half of the film, though, the emphasis begins to slide away from Miller and onto the police who are trying to catch him, including Lieutenant Kafka (Adolphe Menjou) and the police psychologist Kent (Richard Kiley). Kent is prone to long speeches about how sexual criminals should be treated and committed to mental institutions, an early expression of the idea, now encoded in our justice system to some degree, that sexual crime should be treated differently from other kinds of crime. The film essentially goes on hold whenever Kent speaks: there might as well be an announcement that the film is being interrupted by a political advertisement or a public service announcement. Similarly, the depiction of Miller as having been damaged by his mother's strict and possibly abusive upbringing is delivered so bluntly and obviously that it takes away from some of the film's more subtle points.
In the end, The Sniper is an interesting if flawed picture that should be credited for attempting to explore sexual crime in a bold and direct way. Its ideas about sexual deviancy and the dynamics of gender relations might seem dated today, but nothing can take away from the creeping terror of its murder sequences. And nothing can dull the power of its haunting final shot, a slow zoom towards the face of Miller as he's caught by the police, hugging his rifle to his chest, a single tear running down his cheek.