Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Signal Watch Watches "The Sniper"

3 things before we begin:

1)  A few years ago DC Comics had a monthly comic series going called Gotham Central which was about police work in Gotham City.  It took the look of a cop movie or TV police procedural with Michael Lark's illustrative art and it asked "what do the guys wearing ties and drinking coffee who have to do the paperwork when fighting crime do in a city with arch criminals in clown make-up?"

There was a great run (written either by Ed Brubaker or Greg Rucka... I was never sure.  They both got credit.) that had the Major Crimes Unit on red alert in the middle of the holiday shopping season as The Joker decided it would be "funny" to start randomly sniping people in the middle of a snow storm during the holiday buying season.  If you can find that collection: it is fantastic and disturbing.

2)  A few of you are going to jump up and down and say "Did you see the Homicide episodes about the sniper?"  No, I missed them, but they were apparently good enough that I've heard about them from several sources.

3)  If you ever want to know what sort of effect the random violence of a real-life sniper might have on a place, I work at the University of Texas and can see the UT Tower every day when I walk out the door of my building.

Look out for snipers, indeed.

The Sniper was included in the box set of Noir films Jason got me for Christmas, and its an interesting selection.  If you want to check its bona fides, (a) Scorsese discusses the film quite gleefully and (b) Noir historian Eddie Muller provides a running commentary track to the whole movie.  At first blush, I wasn't entirely clear how the picture tied in with my own concepts of what constitutes Noir.  There's not really the erasing of a secure world for a protagonist, no femme fatales per se...

But in the end, I think I get it (and I'm writing this without the benefit of having yet listened to Muller's commentary, which I will do this week).  It does feature a protagonist/antagonist for whom the world is slipping away and is in over his head.  A woman is involved, but its an abstraction by the time we catch up with the sniper.  And, absolutely there's no way out for our sniper.  Still, its an odd fit, right down to how the movie is shot.

The only actors in the movie I recognized were Marie Windsor* and Frank Faylen who played Ernie the cab driver in It's a Wonderful Life.  Our titular sniper, Eddie Miller, is played by Arthur Franz.

"So what's a nice sniper like you doing in a kitchen like this?"
Like many movies of the era, which was turning to science and psychology in new ways, Miller's psychosis is investigated for the audience by way of calm and understanding Voices of Authority as heard through the mouthpiece of the film's young psychologist. However, this movie makes a clear point that the public doesn't really care about the root causes or possible prevention of future outbreaks of violence from a societal and financial standpoint, and is happy to blame the police for not immediately solving random crimes. And, of course, a medical community that doesn't even understand what sorts of signs it should be looking for.

Certainly, the movie is using the story as a pulpit, but its interesting to see the gears of this kind of scenes working through these challenges play out, especially in a movie released in '52, from the dismissive nature of the cops wanting to work through things with a blunt instrument to the power players of the city strong arming political appointees to get results as if the police are sitting on their thumbs.

The movie is absolutely trying to make a statement about understanding violence and the psychology of aggression tied to sexual issues. The producers rightly work to dissolve accusations of exploitation with a pre-title sequence text message about the number of crimes against women in the country, which, in 1952, you have to assume was grossly under-reported. But the pre-credit message is still an interesting way to frame the movie for the audience.

From the first scenes, the movie is on a boil, with Miller a spring so tightly wound its just a matter of time before he snaps. Perhaps its not as masterfully executed as Psycho, and while you may sympathize with both main characters, at no point do you come into the odd place of cheering for the killer in The Sniper (except in sympathizing that the sniper actually does want to be caught), but its interesting to note that this movie precedes Psycho by a full 8 years. The tension starts high and just keeps going.

The film is shot seemingly mostly on location in San Francisco, so our Bay Area readers may get a kick out of seeing their hometown in 1950ish, including neighborhoods right underneath Coit Tower (I checked addresses mentioned in the movie, and they all appear to be fictional, so I was pleased when I saw the tower poking up in one shot to give some reference). The steep terrain is used to great effect, and I had a passing thought that somebody cleverly used the terrain to push the narrative forward as a sort of real-life, naturalistic backdrop that provides the same effect you might have seen in something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but that may be me reading a bit much into the movie. Parts are shot almost as if from a documentary, including a chilling scene where the sniper is seen by someone working on the side of a tower, and absolutely the final shots of the movie. For some reason San Francisco just flat out works in Noir and crime movies as a backdrop in its own way and as a character just as much as LA and New York.

ironically, they can both see their houses from up here
It doesn't push the city scape to the same degree as Kubrick's Killer's Kiss from 1955, but it would be interesting to know if Kubrick had watched The Sniper.

Anyhow, I look forward to listening to Muller's commentary track. Its a fascinating movie, and I'd guess it has an interesting production history.

*whom I think I fell in love with just a little bit while watching Narrow Margin.


Simon MacDonald said...

They way Gotham Central worked is that Brubaker wrote one shift and Rucka wrote the other shift. I can't remember who did the day and who did the night shifts. It is such a fantastic series. I've been picking up the HC's as they come out.

Speaking of Noir movies, can you recommend some essential ones on your blog here for those of us who are just getting into the genre?

The League said...

I really don't recall who wrote the Sniper stuff, either, and the idea, frankly, seems like something either of those guys would cook up. I'll take a look at my trades and see if I can figure it out.

There's a shocking amount of "noir" stuff out there, and the more I watch, the more fluid I'm finding the definition of the genre. I noticed the Film Noir Foundation is trying to decide if "On the Waterfront" fits in the genre, and maybe it does.

I guess I feel comfortable saying things semi-authoritatively about, say, Superman or some parts of comics, but I know I'm just getting rolling with understanding noir, which is why I'm having a good time talking about it.

But I'll see what I can do to piece together at least a recommended viewing list! And I'll try to point to some other folks' lists.