The Sniper (1952) – A Review
Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) has some issues. By day he works as a laundromat delivery man in San Francisco. He’s quiet, keeps to himself and seems as ordinary a fellow one could possibly pass by in the street.
However, there’s something very wrong with Eddie. After a life of being spurned by women an unhinged hatred for them has grown inside him. Now at night he exorcises this unbalanced animosity behind a high-powered rifle, finding unsuspecting victims, shooting anonymous women and slipping back into the shadows of the city.
Despite Eddie hoping the police will stop him he continues with his frightening compulsion. As his killing spree grows, more and more victims are murdered and the entire city is in a panic. The police begin working with a psychologist in an attempt to learn just what kind of individual is capable of these crimes in the desperate hope of finally catching this sniper.
Director Edward Dmytryk (who was one of the Hollywood Ten) crafts an emotional, suspenseful film which I think deserves more attention than it gets. It’s a chilling story of a citywide murder spree that prods you into caring about the murderer as much as his victims. It’s as much a character study as a crime film.
It was interesting to learn The Sniper received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing. I would have immediately assumed this was a low-budget movie that came and went out of theaters without getting any kind of recognition.
From the opening, we witness Miller struggling with the idea of shooting a couple. Intentionally burning his hand as punishment for the thought, he’s finally pushed over the edge by streetwise piano player Jean Darr (Marie Windsor) to unleash his frustration by killing.
From there on out he’s unable to control killing a stream brunettes and his only hope and the city’s is the police stopping him.
Meanwhile, the head detective Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou) and city officials are under pressure to stop this madman with a gun. Criminal psychologist Dr. Kent (Richard Kiley) explains to them his theorized profile of this individual.
His other concern is an uncaring society creating cases like this. Lack of the needed attention of not addressing mental illness or attempting to get the help needed for these people in the beginning leaves a certain amount of responsibility at our feet. He lectures the city officials of only concerning themselves with the issue once it’s unavoidable to deal with and something must be done to prevent this from happening again.
I understand the argument the film and character is making, but these particular scenes comes off a bit hammy. It’s not very subtle and feels preachy. Some of the dialogue about mental illness is a bit simplistic with analyzing Miller’s mental illness by today’s standards. Although I’d guess it was something audiences didn’t hear often in 1952 B-movies. So although it may sound Psych 101 and not very complex to our ears now it does its job.
Franz is great as the unstable killer. He’s distant, cold, but yet you feel some sympathy for him. This kind of portrayal of a killer has much more shadings than what you might typically find in a film from this period .
He’s not just a full blown out bad guy. We see the anguish he’s experiencing from cutting comments he gets from women, the constant rejection he experiences in his life and get a sense of what kind of upbringing Miller had that shaped him in this way. Obviously there’s a lot of ‘mommy issues’ going on with him.
Throughout the film he knows he has major problems, is wrestling with acting on his impulses and genuinely wants to be caught and stop what he’s doing. He physically punishes himself for having such disturbing desires. It’s pretty hardcore.
Yet in the end, all the logic and reasonable thoughts he has are buried under his mental illness. It makes him a much more interesting character than just being a one-dimensional killer.
There’s some great cinematography. The real San Francisco location shooting that was done helps give the film a realistic atmosphere. Scenes taking place at night with long, dark shadows, looming buildings, the serpentine SF streets create a noir-ish look where you never know what danger might be lurking in the shadows – or from a roof. And some of the killings are pretty disturbing for the time.
There’s one particular shooting that takes place with a worker on a smoke stack and it results in a very memorable image.
After a suspenseful, violent story the ending is somewhat unique too and isn’t the kind of big climactic resolution that one might be expecting.
It’s not often films at this time dealt with a serial killer and the mental illness that was fueling their murders. Today, it’s common place. We see it nightly on crime shows, but in 1952 this had to be new ground for audiences to experience.
The phrase ‘ahead of its time’ is used often, but it definitely applies to The Sniper. It’s a very underrated movie and a gem just waiting to be watched.