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The Sniper

The Sniper(1952)

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teaser The Sniper (1952)

"Stop me. Find me and stop me. I'm going to do it again." This is the urgent message the San Francisco police receive from an anonymous serial killer who has been preying on single women in The Sniper (1952). The killer's motivation is unclear; we only know from the film's opening prologue that this "is the story of a man whose enemy was womankind." And as the story unfolds, we see that the killer's hatred of women is motivated by some traumatic incident in his past. Unlike most other crime films of its era in which serial killers were depicted as little more than ciphers who inspire massive manhunts, The Sniper was more interested in presenting a psychological profile of the title assailant while also raising questions about the proper treatment of the mentally ill and how to identify and cure the most dangerous and extreme cases. Eddie (Arthur Franz), the tormented protagonist, is clearly a failure of the system, and the movie shows how his case fell through the cracks, despite his cries for help along the way.

Shot on an amazingly short schedule of eighteen days with location work in both San Francisco and Long Beach, The Sniper was produced by Stanley Kramer who was well known for his interest in controversial and provocative subject matter (racism in Home of the Brave [1949], the rehabilitation of war veterans in The Men [1950], hypocrisy and cowardice in High Noon [1952]). He decided to offer this particular project to Edward Dmytryk, who had just finished serving a jail sentence for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Considering the political climate of the country at that time - one in which a communist witch-hunt had resulted in a Hollywood blacklist - Kramer's decision was a daring one but he knew Dmytryk was a talented director. And The Sniper marked the beginning of a four picture deal between Kramer and Dmytryk.

The Daily Worker, the New York City based Communist newspaper, was one of the first to publicly attack the film in print: "Movie director Edward Dmytryk, ex-member of the Hollywood Ten who turned informer for the FBI, is now palsy-walsy with his erstwhile foe - the rabid witch-hunter and haberdasher's gentleman - Adolphe Menjou. Now Dmytryk and Menjou are together again - this time as friends. Menjou has a leading role in The Sniper, which Dmytryk, gone over to warmongering and restored to favor of the Big Money, is now directing for Stanley Kramer productions."

In his autobiography, It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living, Dmytryk stated that he, Kramer and the screenwriters Edward and Edna Anhalt had decided on Menjou as an inspired bit of offbeat casting. "As a run-of-the-mill police detective, Menjou shaved off his moustache, wore cheap suits and shoes, and was as far removed from the haberdasher's gentleman as we could reasonably get," Dmytryk stated. "Regardless of his extremist views, he had always been a fine actor, and he did an excellent job in our film. We were still at opposite poles politically, though neither of us, as far as I knew, was doing any warmongering. Menjou also received some criticism from his fellow-reactionaries - one of whom asked why he had agreed to work with me. "Because I'm a whore!" he snapped. There always has to be a place in my heart for honesty."

In addition to the controversy over Kramer's decision to hire Dmytryk as the director, The Sniper also ran into trouble with the Production Code office, Hollywood's censorship bureau which was headed by Joseph Breen. According to an interview with screenwriter Edward Anhalt, "We got a letter saying this film cannot be made. It violated section 27 paragraph 4 of the Code, which actually said perversion cannot be the subject of a motion picture. So I was appointed to go to the board and fight for it. I said 'This doesn't violate the rule at all, because it's not about perversion.' So he [Breen], furious at me, said, 'What are you talkin' about it's not about perversion? It's about a man who gets an orgasm from shooting women! That's not perversion?' I said, 'No, perversion would be if he got an orgasm from shooting men.' [laughs] And for some incredible reason they bought it, and that's how we got the picture made."

Despite the film's focus on the psychological aspects of the story, The Sniper still has the no-nonsense approach and fast-paced style of a superior B-movie suspense thriller. Arthur Franz, an excellent character actor who rarely got the opportunity to prove himself in leading roles, is both creepy and sympathetic as the mentally disturbed Eddie. [SPOILER ALERT] Marie Windsor, a memorable presence in such classic noirs as The Narrow Margin [1952] and The Killing [1956], also registers strongly in a supporting role as one of the unfortunate victims. The scene where she is shot outside a bar and the impact of the bullet sends her body crashing through a plate glass window still wields a blunt power today and must have been truly shocking for fifties audiences.

Dmytryk's first film for Kramer proved he hadn't lost any of the visual imagination or directorial skills he displayed so prominently in Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947). And he managed to add something fresh and new to scenes of the police manhunt in The Sniper. "Our film included a rooftop chase of a "copycat" sniper," he recalled. "Everyone has seen dozens of rooftop chases, and I wanted something different. After a brief mental bout, I came up with the idea of rooftop clotheslines hung with laundry, which I had never seen used in chase scenes. Having too many other problems facing me at the moment, I tossed the laundry idea to the sketch artist. In a couple of days, he brought me a very unusual and photogenic conception of a chase through a sea of flapping sheets. It made an interesting and unusual sequence out of what might otherwise have been something quite routine." The final sequence as well, in which Eddie is caught in the act of sniping by a man climbing a smokestack behind him, is another offbeat but memorable moment that Edward Anhalt based on an incident he actually witnessed.

According to Stanley Kramer, "When Harry Cohn [Head of Columbia Pictures] saw The Sniper in a studio screening room, he said, "This thing stinks. I hate it, and it'll never make a nickel." The few mainstream critics who reviewed it were also mixed in their reactions with The New York Times' Bosley Crowther voicing a common criticism: "...the preachment is primly academic and it seems but a dignified excuse for working a slightly different angle into a simple man-hunt on the screen...the menace and understanding of the sex fiend hopefully implied in the foreward to the picture are never clearly revealed." The film's publicists didn't help matters either by sending out bullets to critics and industry professionals as part of their pre-release teaser campaign (Kramer's production company quickly apologized with a full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter). Even a series of real-life sniper attacks by Evan Charles Thomas in the Los Angeles area just prior to the film's opening didn't generate any widespread curiosity about Dmytryk's film.

As Cohn predicted, The Sniper performed poorly at the box office but its reputation is considerably better today where it is recognized as not just a tautly-directed film noir but a critique of contemporary society and urban alienation inviting comparisons to Martin Scorsese's later Taxi Driver (1976). It also didn't go unnoticed during the Academy Award nominations of its release year, garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story.

Producer: Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt, Stanley Kramer
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt, Harry Brown
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Film Editing: Aaron Stell
Art Direction: Walter Holscher
Music: George Antheil
Cast: Adolphe Menjou (Police Lt. Frank Kafka), Arthur Franz (Eddie Miller), Gerald Mohr (Police Sgt. Joe Ferris), Marie Windsor (Jean Darr), Frank Faylen (Police Inspector Anderson), Richard Kiley (Dr. James Kent).

by Jeff Stafford

It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living: A Hollywood Memoir by Edward Dmytryk (Times Books)
A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A Life in Hollywood by Stanley Kramer with Thomas M. Coffey (Harcourt Brace & Co.)
TCM Archives Interview with Edward Anhalt

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