Sunday 1 April 2007

The Sniper (1952) Edward Dmytryk

Films like this one tend to either succeed wonderfully or fail dismally and there's no room in between for anything else. By 'films like this one' I mean crime thrillers where we find out who did it at the very beginning of the film and to catch him the police have to understand who he was and why. Here the killer is Edward Miller, played by Arthur Franz, and he knows exactly what he is but can't stop himself. He's a former GI with a skill that he fights himself from using. With his prison psychiatrist away, he kills one, then another and leaves a note telling the police to stop him before he does it again.

The police are helpless but they persevere. The lead on the case is Adolphe Menjou, who does a very realistic job of an older police lieutenant who's stuck in the old ways but aware of the new. The police psychiatrist pushes for the application of science and logic to the case but the powers that be don't want to know. They just want the man caught and punished. The shrink, and the filmmakers, are more concerned with addressing issues before they get to this stage, so that they can save the next victims.

The thinking behind this logic is solid and well understood today, as demonstrated amply in series like Criminal Minds, but it was brand new in the fifties and usually seen as 'psychiatric mumbo jumbo', as it's described here. The powers that be see it as coddling the crooks, but that's not true. Kent, the psychiatrist, wants people like Miller put away too, but into a psychiatric ward on their first offence, so that they can be either cured and released or kept there indefinitely so as to keep them from killing again.

We know Miller is the sniper and we know it from the very beginning. We watch him wrestle with who he is and fight himself from committing these acts. The first time we see him shoot someone, his gun isn't even loaded. He even burns his hand to try to stop himself but fails. He's a killer but he's also a victim; and that doesn't excuse him from his crimes, it merely helps to explain them. The powers that be are idiots with their own agendas and the public are no different. The only people with any sense of reality here are a couple of police: Lt Kafka and Kent the psychiatrist. That's a strangely short list of good guys in a film pushing for future change in society.

Both Kafka and Kent are wonderfully played, especially Kafka who is underplayed to perfection by an elderly Adolphe Menjou. The star has to be Arthur Franz though. I've seen him before in a number of films but never really paid attention until now. He's very believable in the role, both as an angry misogynistic killer and as a sympathetic young man driven somehow beyond his means to control. It's a very impressive performance indeed and it, along with Edward Dmytryk's superb direction, to make this a success.

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