4/12/2007. the sniper

john cribbs

In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like I Bury the Living to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance - due to the length of the essays, some of the entries such as Berlin Alexanderplatz and The War Lord will be broken out individually.

4.12. The Sniper

Everyone is busy with the regular routine

The sniper just takes his aim

Everyone is window shopping, no one is amazed

Even if he hit you, you'd still think it's just a graze

You go to a movie, you go to a show

You think that you're living, you don't really know.

- Elvis Costello, "Big Tears"


If people were happy to sit on their hands for Elia Kazan, I'd be curious what sort of reception Edward Dmytryk would have received had he ever won some sort of lifetime achievement award. Known to many as the Judas of the Hollywood Ten, he spent several months in prison before denouncing Communism and voluntarily spilling his guts to the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. Dmytryk, who had previously made intelligent genre films dealing with anti-semitism and veterans coping with PTSD, had been working in England during his exile from Hollywood - he returned to America in 1951 and suffered the indignity of having to direct Adolphe Menjou, one of the most virulent Red-baiters of the HUAC hearings, in his first film back in the States. Weirdly enough one of Menjou's final roles was beside Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, ironic considering the part Douglas played in breaking the Hollywood blacklist.

So what's all this got to do with shooting innocent women? Nothing much on the surface, and nothing too subtextual either unless you want to champion the argument that being picked off anonymously on the street is an example of the same sort of random victimization that was happening during the McCarthy era. But I don't think I'd follow you on that.

The movie is The Sniper - I found out about it when my research into the making of Jeremiah Johnson led me to Edward Anhalt, the fascinating and talented screenwriter who wrote this one with second wife (of five) Edna Anhalt.* Dmytryk's name isn't the first one that comes up the screen: first credit goes to Stanley Kramer, who produced the movie. Oh great...what kind of sappy, melodramatic, outdated-even-at-the-time-of-release message can we expect here? We do get a message right off the bat, an accusatory prologue that states this "study of a man whose enemy was womankind" exists to help doctors, policemen etc better recognize the traits of a potential serial murderer, and the resulting story does its share of fingerpointing. Before he actually goes through with his killing streak, the lonely, misunderstood individual is released from an asylum due to inmate overpopulation. Then he burns his hand on a stove to stave off his homicidal impulses, but his cry for help - while correctly interpreted at the local ER - is ignored when a shuttle of car accident victims take precedence over the guy with the minor burn. Oh these ignorant fools...the ensuing deaths are their fault, really.

But seriously what does Kramer expect of these people, and does he really consider them equally or more liable than the nutjob who pulls the trigger? From the sympathy afforded the subject I'd have to say possibly/definitely. Played by Arthur Franz (the astronomer from Invaders from Mars and narrator of Sands of Iwo Jima) with a lot of pent-up anguish, sweating and hard-breathing, he's presented as somebody just looking for a gal who understands his loneliness but is met with only the harsh reality of feminine indifference. It seems like every schlub but him has a girl on each arm. He delivers clothes for a cleaning company run by a horrible, emasculating harpy of a female boss. His advances towards women are callously confused by them for mere friendliness and the ones who actually appear interested turn out to be drunken floozies. Moreover, Franz torments himself psychologically as well as physically out of horrible guilt for what he believes he has to do. But seeing where this guy is coming from is like feeling bad for the dirtbag in Dirty Harry, a movie that's also about a rogue sniper in San Francisco, who I guess is let off the martyr list only because he doesn't feel bad about fixing an innocent person in his crosshairs and blowing them away. In fact The Sniper comes off so liberal in its imploring for some amount of understanding of its main character, it's almost like Siegel's movie was a direct response to it.** Instead of writing a note that pleads with the cops to "find me and stop me!" the Andrew Robinson Harry villain took a page from the Zodiac's book and sent them taunting details of his next crime. But this guy can't help himself and feels bad about it...poor fella. For god's sake, the poster even features the final image of the film: a sensitive Franz caressing his weapon as a soft tear falls from his eye. I'm frankly surprised the title isn't The Soul of a Sniper.

Personally I don't even want to get into the argument of the bleeding-heart left vs the cold-dead-hand right when it comes to the issue of how to treat mass murderers. And I'm in no way suggesting that it's not a huge deal that Hollywood tried to make a movie from the perspective of a serial killer as early as 1952...only that the effort wasn't entirely successful and more than occassionally slips into melodrama. What I did get from the movie is that jobs suck, and people aren't perfect at what they do - but you can't really blame them. 55 years before David Fincher's Zodiac movie, this one details the tedium of police investigation, depicting detectives falling asleep while interviewing countless suspects and joking with each other while reviewing files on every registered sex offender in the city to break up the monotony (thus initially breezing over the true culprit's file). The hospital staff are already responsible for medical patients, is recognizing homicidal tendencies in psychiatric patients who weren't even triaged for a mental evaluation one of their jobs too? Even occupations that don't involve diagnosing or capturing dangerous sociopaths range from excruciatingly depressing to downright harmful in the movie: Franz's delivery service leads him to his first victim, and said victim's unglamorous job playing piano at some dive is where she meets her unglamorous end.

That victim is played by Marie Windsor (co-star of great noir titles like Force of Evil, The Narrow Margin and The Killing) and she's incredibly effective as a charming pianist whose innocent flirtatious behavior paints a target around her more than once. In a surprising and effective scene, she's shown dealing with a drunk jackass coming on to her at the bar - I thought it was going to be a plot point, like the police end up suspecting the guy of her murder since he threatens her before stumbling out, but it's actually just a subtle addition to show how vulnerable even strong women are to predatory losers (Anhalt's contribution I'm guessing). It's a sad moment that makes an interesting comparison to her violent death in the following scene.

Dmytryk's suspense sequences are not surprisingly tense and gripping, with the snipering of a woman through her apartment window an immaculately well-executed and harrowing shot, especially considering the period. There's an excellently conceived shot of a lady taking down hanging laundry to reveal a cop patrolling the rooftop to establish the 28 Weeks Later-like city-wide surveillance. The occasional scene tends to straddle the line between intense and silly, like when the sniper is at a carnival and expertly throws a number of pitches to silence a mouthy chick at a dunking booth attraction. The concept of the scene itself is hokey, but Franz's mounting intensity and the girl's transition from hurling insults to becoming utterly humiliated and terrified build to an orgasmic breaking point thanks to the taut editing. By the time he starts inevitably chucking balls straight at the cage and she runs screaming from her perch it's gone from a case of "ok we get it" to a real "jesus christ!" moment.

The highlight by far is a beautifully constructed scene where Franz is squaring off on his latest target atop a building while a painter ascends a water tower via cable pulley in the background. The two don't see each other at first, but the guy finally notices Franz and starts screaming warnings at the crowd below. He hurls a can of white paint, which splatters across the gray pavement - a gorgeous use of the black & white photography (the camerawork, a combination of flat documentary shooting and moody noir lighting, is by the great Burnett Gaffney). In the best looking shot of the movie, the sniper turns his rifle on the flailing painter and fires, sending his reeling victim back down the long cord in graceful slow motion.

Menjou plays a cop named Frank Kafka (??) who finally manages to put together two pieces of information and hunt down the killer. There's another authority figure who gives a ridiculous speech reiterating the opening blurb's theory that society has no effective system for leafing out the true psychos (it reminded me of the more effective speech about the cyclical nature of punitive rehabilitation by the social worker in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain). A big fault of the film is that it spends too much time with these government types; Franz's shooter should have been given a normal person to be around to give his character a little more depth, an Iris to his Travis Bickle.*** Instead he has only a clueless, one-dimensional landlady, emasculating boss and his eventual victims to play off of. In that regard, the subsequent film other than Dirty Harry I was reminded of was Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, which made an interesting parallel between its merciless, note-writing sniper**** and Boris Karloff's "old monster" of a movie veteran. On a positive note, there's an Asian-American extra who has a few lines, which is the only time I remember seeing an Asian actresses not playing a character specifically identified as Japanese or Chinese in an American movie made before the 1960's.


* Expect another collaboration between the two of them to pop up before this 200 Movie experiment is finally over. 

** 2010 update: The Sniper ended up being released on dvd in one of those great Columbia Pictures classic collections along with Siegel's excellent thriller The Lineup.

*** Scorsese is an noted admirer of the film.

**** Who is a Vietnam vet, if I remember correctly. Although the time period implies that Franz's killer must have learned to shoot in the army/fought in World War II, this film doesn't use the same kind of patriotic appreciation for veterans as Dmytryk's Till the End of Time to make his inner turmoil more sympathetic. Just his inability to score.


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