Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Sniper (1952)

It was Goddard who said that the history of cinema was the history of boys photographing girls. He had something there. The first hundred years of cinema were dominated by men—directors, cinematographers, studio heads—and many of those men liked to take pretty pictures of pretty girls. Film noir is no exception to this rule, which is why people like Audrey Totter and Gloria Grahame are icons. We in the audience—male and female alike—are entranced by their beauty, grace, fragility, and, ultimately, by their humanity. The camera is an awesome liturgical instrument; it worships certain faces like a believer bearing witness to his or her savior’s divinity.

And yet, the history of cinema is also full of corners darkened with misogyny. Film noir has been attacked occasionally for being misogynist. Sometimes those charges will stick. The camera can capture resentment as well as love.

One of the first films to turn the camera around to take a look at the specter of misogyny itself was Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper. It tells the intense story of a gun-toting psycho named Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) who terrorizes San Francisco by shooting women from different rooftops around the city. His first victim is a piano player he knows named Jean Darr (Marie Windsor). Her murder—quick, hard, merciless—comes as a shock even today. Windsor, of course, is just about as iconic an actress can get in this genre, and that gives her killing nearly as much of a jolt as Janet Leigh’s murder in Psycho eight years later.

In fact, it’s difficult to watch Eddie Miller run around San Francisco shooting innocent women without thinking of all the woman-murdering nutjobs (from Norman Bates to Buffalo Bill and beyond) who would follow him onto the silver screen in the decades to come. Are films like The Sniper, Psycho, and The Silence of the Lambs examinations of misogyny, or are they expressions of it? Are they any better than slasher flicks and torture porn?

I think so. The Sniper is very much about Eddie Miller’s contorted view of women and the psychosis it engenders. If anything, the film is heavy-handed in this respect. Every single scene of Miller with a woman ends with his face twisted into spasms of anger. What is the root of this hatred of women? The film doesn’t come out and tell us, but there is a scene where, seeing a mother slap her son, Miller reflexively lifts his hand to his own face. This implication of past abuse is simplistic, of course, but is there an answer the movie could provide to us which wouldn’t be simplistic? The mystery of Eddie Miller is the same mystery surrounding real life serial killers like Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgeway. Why would these men—who outwardly seemed like normal, productive members of society—do what they did? Where does this hatred come from?

One cannot explain the unexplainable, but one can regard it and recoil from it. In doing so, this film fits into the larger tradition within noir of documenting the violent implosion of the postwar American man. While The Sniper is not perfect, it is perhaps the collapsing male ego’s starkest filmic expression in the 1950s.


The film has been newly released on DVD.

One reason, perhaps, that this film has remained largely unseen for the past fifty-odd years is the complicated story of its director. Edward Dmytryk was considered a great filmmaker in his day but when he was fingered as a Communist by the House Committee on Un-American Activities he panicked and named names. It wasn't exactly a profile in courage, but Dmytryk was hardly alone in that respect. At any rate, it's unfair to degrade his work for his lack of moral courage. The two things are not connected, and while it's true that some of his films (I'm thinking The Caine Mutiny) have not aged well, some of his work--like Murder, My Sweet; Crossfire; and The Sniper--still holds up and deserves to be seen. Read more about Edward Dmytryk here.

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