Michael Burnside: Sexual Sniper

THE SNIPER (1952) deals with a psychotic misogynist who takes to shooting women. It comes to us from Stanley Kramer’s production company.

Here’s Paul Mayersberg on Stanley Kramer in Hollywood The Haunted House ~

“In Kramer you can see the real dilemma of the Hollywood director. He wants to be an artist and he wants to be popular. He doesn’t want to be the compleat middlebrow which is what he is, what he is forced to be. Kramer has not come to terms with popular culture in the United States. So where does he stand? Bang in the middle of Reader’s Digest country, but he is no philistine. To be cruel about it, Kramer is Hollywood’s answer to Arthur Miller.”

Far from being cruel, that’s probably the most sympathetic critique of Kramer I’ve read. Though middlebrow reviewers may like some of his films, those who see them as preachy and dull tend to be savage in their dismissal. Mayersberg gets at the root of the problem and shows simply and directly how Kramer’s good intentions make for bad cinema. (Yet when Kramer tried his hand at pure entertainment in IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, the results were even worse. It’s Steven Spielberg’s favourite comedy, and thus we get Spielberg’s own bloated comedy corpse, 1941.)

THE SNIPER is a Kramer production, but it’s directed by Edward Dmytryk and it’s a thriller, so that gives it a slightly schizoid character. Kramer usually saw himself as above genre, which is part of where he goes wrong. As Mayersberg says ~

“Oddly enough, the subtleties of form occur in the genre movies rather than the theme movies, because in genres you are playing variations within certain conventions and you can be more experimental. We may be close to André Gide’s idea that ‘art is born of constraint and dies of freedom.'”

The schizoid nature of THE SNIPER comes from its script, direction and production. The script is at pains to lay everything out, to explain everything over and over, and to make us understand its central theme. A title crawl at the beginning tells us what this theme is. Then we see it nakedly expressed in the action of the plot. The characters discuss it and the psychiatrist character explains it so we can all understand. And the bit-part players keep up a running commentary on events also, so we get to hear what the man in the street thinks. The schism lies between this idiot’s approach to storytelling, and the intelligent and dynamic use of visual storytelling by director Edward Dmytryk.

Dmytryk had a weakness for the big theme too, but at least he liked to express it in visual terms. Maybe making socially conscious films like THE SNIPER was a way to reassure himself that he hadn’t sold out after he became a friendly witness and ratted on his former pals in the Communist Party.

Whatever his politics, Dmytryk didn’t automatically become a bad director when he turned stoolie (that came later). He directs THE SNIPER with flair, using striking deep-focus compositions (although he claimed to hate the use of wide-angle lenses for oncreasing depth of field, preferring to use them for psychological distortion). The great Burnett Guffey is D.O.P. here, making atmospheric use of San Francisco locations, transforming them at night with near-expressionistic lighting.

In an effort to stop his homicidal impulses, our sniper burns his hand on the oven ring, and Dmytryk and Guffey contrive a bizarre low-angle shot with the hot hob casting an implausible glow on the ceiling:

Each bullet from the sniper’s gun is effectively shocking and abrupt. Several of the murders aren’t even shown — Kramer and co are anxious not to make this an exploitation film. Hence all those screeds of verbiage. The insane killer is shown as a victim of his psychological disorder and of an uncaring society. It’s all very liberal and decent, and when Dmytryk is allowed to do his job and tell the story with sound and image it can be effective too.

Adolph Menjou is Detective Frank Kafka (yeah, I laughed too), which is a literary reference with no apparent point. Arthur Franz is attractive and charismatic as the killer. The terrific Marie Windsor appears only briefly, but is as warm and lovely here as she is harsh and brazen in THE NARROW MARGIN. And she has a mouth the size of Charles Durning, which is no bad thing:

Weirdly, the film classes the sniper as a sexual criminal, but the behaviour of the character doesn’t really suggest he gets a sexual charge out of his crimes, although he does kill attractive brunettes, often ones he’s failed to get off with. The police haul in assorted “peepers, rapists and defilers” and have them publicly humiliated in a lineup by a chubby interlocutor with the air of a stand-up comedian.

Then a psychiatrist explains that there’s no crossover in criminal insanity — none of these criminals could turn sniper. Incidentally he’s wrong — the absurdly-named Colin Pitchfork, the first murderer arrested on DNA evidence (read Joseph Wambaugh’s excellent The Blooding for the fascinating story) was a flasher who moved on to rape and murder as an extension of his initial perversion.

In its killer’s M.O. and San Francisco setting, THE SNIPER oddly looks forward to the Scorpio killer and his movie incarnations in DIRTY HARRY and SCORPIO. Where Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY portrayed its killer as a motiveless force of pure malevolence, and David Fincher’s SCORPIO uses him as a kind of defining absence at the story’s heart, the Dmytryk urges compassion and clinical care for the disturbed. It’s a very honourable film. But perhaps best watched with the sound off.

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8 Responses to “Michael Burnside: Sexual Sniper”

  1. Actually Kramer isn’t that bad a director. I quite like On the Beach, and The Runner Stumbles is a sublmely insane “late period” movie.

    As for Dymytriyk, Abraham Polonsky told me that when he was hired by Universal in the mid-sixties, after struggling for years as a “front” he crossed Dymyrick’ path in the studio cafeteria. “Abe how are you?” Dymytryk called out cheerfully. “Fuck you!” Abe just as cheerfully replied.

  2. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Waorld is seldom funny, but often terrifying. Few things are quite as scary as Ethel Merman in Cinerama.

    As for 1941, don’t get me started — I just adore it! It’s Spielberg’s Party Girl.

  3. I like some of Kramer’s Zinneman productions, and The 5.000 Fingers of Dr T is a masterpiece.

    Funny about Polonsky, I was just re-watching Force of Evil (great DVD restoration!) I think Dmytryk was in deep deep denial about just what he’d done and why he’d done it.

  4. Abe’s last film Romance of a Horse Thief is a mad masterpiece. What a cast: Eli Wallach, Yul Brynner, Lanie Kazan, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Not to be missed under any circumstances.

  5. Marty Scorsese has always been crazy about Force of Evil. The relationship between the brothers mirrors that of Marty and his own brother — the one no one ever talks about.

  6. I’m still aiming to get ahold of Horse Thief sometime. Scorsese part-funded the Force of Evil restoration, it says.

    So, what’s the big secret with the brother?

  7. I’s like Mean Streets. He’s Johnny Boy to Marty’s Charlie. Not sure if he’s still alive. The classic “black sheep of the family.”

  8. I think I’ve heard Scorsese talk about his dad’s brother, whom his dad was always trying keep out of trouble, and citing that as a model for Mean Streets. This would make it a lot more personal. And he’s certainly been erased from the textbooks,

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