The Sniper (1952): Off Target

The Sniper (1952)

A sharp-shooting psychopath who hates woman goes on a killing
spree in San Francisco and is pursued by the police.

Director Edward Dmytryk started work on The Sniper just after he finished serving a 12 month jail sentence for refusing to co-operate with the infamous HUAC. Upon his release Dmytryk recanted and squealed to the HUAC naming names. Producer Stanley Kramer then offered him this Columbia production. Ironically, the veteran right-wing actor and HUAC collaborator, Adolphe Menjou, was signed to play an un-sartorial cop sans moustache.  The NY-based Daily Worker was not impressed: “Movie director Edward Dmytryk, ex-member of the Hollywood Ten who turned informer for the FBI, is now palsy-walsy with his erstwhile foe – the rabid witch-hunter and haberdasher’s gentleman – Adolphe Menjou. Now Dmytryk and Menjou are together again – this time as friends. Menjou has a leading role in The Sniper, which Dmytryk, gone over to warmongering and restored to favor of the Big Money, is now directing for Stanley Kramer productions.”.

A solid b-production, The Sniper is a taut thriller, which does not quite come off as a film noir, although there are strong moments in this gritty story of a young loner battling a deep and violent pathological hatred of young woman. Shot on location on the streets of San Francisco, angle shots and off-kilter staging sustain the visual interest throughout, with those scenes in the seconds before the sniper shoots three of his victims being particularly suspenseful.

The Sniper (1952)

The acting is rather stolid and this weakens the drama. While the script attempts to explain the sniper’s pathology and sermonises on how the law should handle such offenders, there is little real depth to the portrayal. Filler scenes used to establish his immediate motivation are too obviously contrived, with the younger women he encounters socially being unnecessarily mean-spirited. But in a sequence in an amusement park, the pathology and the anger of the sniper are deftly explored without artifice and with chilling accuracy.

The police investigation has just too many convenient coincidences, and the meetings with the cops and the good burghers of ‘Frisco demanding action on the pursuit are too stagey by half. A fair b-thriller of considerable historical interest.

The Sniper (1952)

12 thoughts on “The Sniper (1952): Off Target”

  1. Well Tony, there is nobody as successful as you in finding stuff I haven’t yet seen, although in this case I am quite familiar with the director Edward Dmytryk, who has a few genuine B classics to his name.
    As always, your discerning eye doesn’t allow you issue the all-too-familiar and facile “what a great B classic” or the likes. In this instance, you have cited the “stolid” acting and “plot contrivances” as the essential problematic elements, yet you have high regard for the on-location San Francisco shooting and “visual interest.” This kind of subject of course has that built-in hook for entertainment, so I definitely am intrigued.
    I do know about that infamous HUAC Dmytryk probe, and it always disturbs me, as does other well-documented witchunts from that period. In any case, it was an excellent historical lead-in, and methinks a worthy enough reason to see this film, as you yourself concede.

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  2. I couldn’t agree more your general opinion here, Tony. Turner Classic Movies shows this film from time to time and I’ve seen it at least twice. There are parts I like, actually, including the very ending, but most of the good parts are drowned out by the bad. Excellent review!

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  3. Thanks Alexander. Yes,the final stakeout is strong with a cinema verite feel, and the scenes of the nosy public straining against police lines and leaning out of apartment windows remind me of Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon.

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  4. About a year ago I read James Wolcott’s brief take on this film which prompted me to watch it also (my cable package currently doesn’t have TCM but it was available On-Demand for free).

    http://www.vanityfair.com/online/wolcott/2007/03/selfstyled_sire.html

    While i agree somewhat with this assessment and somewhat with Tony’s, I was struck by how much real though brief emotion and tension (or perhaps just empathy) was created by the deaths of Marie Windsor’s character and that of the barfly.
    Maybe it’s more of a testament to the acting ability of Ms. Windsor (who one feels similarly toward when she’s shot again in the Narrow Margin) and that of Ms. Carr (? -who died only two years later?).
    But I felt that the director was able to accurately portray the kind of postwar,’round-midnite type of isolation (and in the case of the sniper and barfly, desperation) of these three characters – all of which really drew me in.
    Not to mention the gothic cityscape of San Francisco (a disorienting mix of elevations, alleys and architecture – that was also portrayed as an isolating and lonely place, although on a much larger and lusher scale in “Veritgo”).
    Speaking of Hitchcock, “Psycho” also has that same sort of “dime-store psychology” that annoyingly deflates some of the drama and tension of this film.

    Despite the many shortcomings, I liked “The Sniper”.
    I guess I just thought it was interesting that despite the flirtatiousness of Ms. Windsor (and to some extent the barfly), one person ends the night playing piano to an empty club and a solitary walk home, while the other stumbles back to her small apartment only to sleep with an old cloth doll. Both women are just as alone as the sniper.

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  5. Sam, ach – good question. Off the top of my head I think ending at amusement park and I think (and obviously I’m including carnival/travelling fair as “amusement park”) – Strangers on a Train and Some Came Running…

    But I think my favorite amusement park, or amusement ride I guess, scene in any movie would have to be The Third Man.

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  6. Movie Man, I must admit that the broaching of THE THIRD MAN, brings immediate excitement, as I rank that as my favorite British film of all time. And yes the amusement park is an unforgettable setting there. I was thinking myself though of one of your other choices, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, where the murder was committed, all seen through the eye glasses on the ground. But SOME CAME RUNNING is an excellent choice too.

    Nice!

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