Now here’s an interesting caper: Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper. This dark tale of male rage was a product of the later noir cycle, when the root problems of violence began to be examined on a psychological level. It’s about a veteran whose mother didn’t love him and who now desires women on a violent level. The film was pulled from release prematurely due to its graphic violence (which even stunned a hardened film viewer like me in 2014), and sort of faded into obscurity after that. It’s a shame it’s not more well known, since it’s an obvious precursor to films like Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver.
In San Francisco, lonely veteran Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) wanders the streets, looking for someone to connect with. From his apartment window, he takes aim at women with a high-powered carbine rifle, and pulls the trigger on the unloaded weapon. After being scorned by Marie Windsor, he begins his real killing spree – targeting women who unknowingly fill him with rage.
The rest of the film is a standard manhunt thriller structure, with Eddie begging the police to stop him before he can kill again. Audiences are used to that dog and pony show nowadays, but in 1952 it was unique. Particularly unique was the way the film directly addressed sex crimes against women and the mind of a tortured individual who takes his homicidal urges out on women. That was simply unheard of back then.
The assassination scenes truly are shocking. To think of an audience seeing these acts in 1952…I can’t even. The first hit is especially brutal – Marie Windsor’s head snapping back after being shot, shattering a glass framed advertisement behind her. As Eddie Muller points out in his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, The Sniper “is notable for how it depicts Miller’s derangement with a fresh sense of dispassion. It neither sympathizes with him nor treats him like a rabid animal.”
There’s one particularly chilling scene where Eddie heads to a carnival to blow off some steam. He’s killing it at a target shooting game, then he tries to shoot a young couple on the Ferris wheel with the peashooter. Then he decides to try his luck at the dunk tank, where a spunky young blonde is taunting him from the booth. He dunks her once, twice, three, times, four times, man, he just keeps wailing that target. Then his anger boils over and he starts hurling the fastballs at her. A stunned crowd looks on as she screams for her life. It’s heavy stuff.
One of the characters is a police psychologist, who waxes hard about the risk of having so many brain-damaged individuals loose in the city. In 1952, sexual deviants weren’t really taken seriously as threats. There’s a great scene in a police station where they’ve rounded up all the deviants they have on file and make a mockery of them. It’s like the cops can’t help themselves, nor can they understand that some sexual predators have homicidal urges – like old Eddie boy. He even tries to have himself locked up in the psych ward at one point, but the hospital staff can’t be bothered.
The film ends on a sober note, with Eddie cornered in his apartment, cradling his rifle. The Sniper is a significant film that echoed through the ’60s and ’70s, and is now pretty much forgotten. Check it out on DVD from Columbia if you get the chance.