Criterion Prediction #268: The Sniper, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Sniper
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Cast: Arthur Franz, Marie Windsor, Adolphe Menjou, Gerald Mohr
Synopsis: Eddie Miller takes to the rooftops and high-rise windows to exact compulsory killings of women with his sniper rifle. His warped sexual ideation fuels his desire to kill, and while he resists his urges, it’s only a short time in between victims that fall between his crosshairs.
Critique: Where did this come from? The Sniper is a movie about psychological profiling and serial killing before those terms were coined. Edward Dmytryk’s film is reeling with the plain-spoking exigent potency that’s defined his best work. He’s the kind of artist who seems so unfettered by artistic prestige that it puts him in that league of effortlessly talented directors. Granted, this is just a hifalutin way to say that he was “too cool for school,” but there are a few indentations of moody aesthetic flourishes throughout his career. Obsession, agony, and oppression are mainstays in his body of work. Still, it’s cloaked in a low flying stylism that keeps him from the recognition we see awarded to the likes of Otto Preminger or Elia Kazan (speaking of the blacklist). However, his legacy is still a topic unto itself.
The Caine Mutiny is likely his most visible, or Crossfire, the moody exploration of antisemitism via film noir, but The Sniper is one of his most sobering psychological explorations. The film opens without dialogue, we see a man unpack a rifle, replete with scope, over the titles; we can presume this is our sniper. The methodical process is unsettling in itself, we don’t know much, but there’s enough to tell that it isn’t going to be good. He sets his scope on the streets; his crosshairs fall on a happy couple, he instinctively draws his sights on the women in her partner’s embrace. It’s a clean shot, and he could paint the stairwell with her brains, but when he pulls the trigger, there’s the click of an empty chamber. Anguished, embarrassed, and frustrated, he takes to the streets. He instinctively grabs his cheek when he sees a crying child gets clocked by their mother as if the two are somehow linked. After that, he strolls through the park, and there’s a couple necking off the path, another unsightly event he can’t bear. I’d like to resist amateur psychology, but there’s a thick layer of sexual frustration, anger directed at women, likely bolstered by some childhood trauma. The Sniper just unloads a whole mess of character development and the leading player of interest hasn’t uttered a word; this is the kind of taciturn storytelling that makes Dmytryk’s film pulse with coarse brevity. Clearly, we’re dealing with a dangerous person. The name of the movie is The Sniper so it’s not a shock when our fractured lead (“protagonist” sounds like a misnomer) begins pulling the trigger (with live ammunition). The action is matter-of-fact and at times jarring. It presents violence without aesthetic flourish, and the unsensational instincts suit the material. Dmytryk surpasses genre parameters in that the narrative points to systemic derivations and psychological root causes and the flaws in the judicial system because the movie presents the cracks in legislation that allow dangerous people to walk the streets with relative impunity.
There are some dated elements but not to the degree that it subverts the import of the film. It’s wading in some prescient water, sometimes incidentally but it’s possible that Dmytryk was ahead of the curve.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: This is a curio of American cinema that begs to be rediscovered. Aren’t those Criterion releases the best? When you see them announce something you had no idea existed, maybe it was hiding in plain sight or it was simply off of your radar. For me, that was Blast of Silence, Downhill Racer, or Ride the Pink Horse. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of movies out there, and we can’t expect to see them all, and in the Criterion tradition, it would be great if they unleashed this dark slice of fifties cinema to the masses. Also, given our ongoing cultural conversation regarding gender-motivated violence and our preoccupation with serial killers and psychological profiling, this is revelatory in that it’s a time capsule and resembles our potentially dangerous interest in senseless violence.