Alfred Hitchcock was a voracious filmgoer, and like many great artists, a bit of a magpie. Consciously or unconsciously, he would file away shots and sequences that impressed him, and years later some of them would re-emerge, reshaped by Hitchcock’s genius and fully integrated into his personal universe.
As “Vertigo” turns 50 this weekend, I’m reminded of Edward Dmytryk’s 1952 “The Sniper,” a Stanley Kramer production for Columbia that recently resurfaced on TCM after years of unavailability. (It’s missing, alas, from Sony’s recent Kramer box set, where it would have been overwhelmingly the best film in the collection.)
Based on a story by Edna and Edward Anhalt, “The Sniper” is one of the earliest films to conform fully to the serial killer formula as we know it today. Much of the film is told from the point of view of the sympathetic anti-hero, Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), a young, mentally disturbed veteran of World War II who has taken to the streets of San Francisco with a high powered rifle he uses to pick off women. Harry Brown’s screenplay contains what is very likely one of the first uses of the quintessential line in serial killer movies, when a bystander remarks, “There’s a maniac loose in San Francisco and the police are powerless to stop him!”
Because San Francisco it is: again, “The Sniper” is very likely one of the first films – using the new, more mobile equipment that emerged in the late 40s – to take full advantage as San Francisco as a location, transforming the city’s famously vertiginous geography into a metaphor for its protagonist’s unstable mental state. Using the extreme foreground/background tension that is his stylistic hallmark, Dmytryk plays huge close-ups of Franz against the open chasms of the city, very much as Hitchcock would do – though in less tense, more lyrical manner – six years later. There is even a rooftop chase sequence, when a group of cops converges on a teenager they mistakenly believe to be the killer, that directly suggests the opening sequence in “Vertigo” – the chase that leads to Scottie’s fall.
If Hitchcock mined “The Sniper” for “Vertigo,” he seems also to have remembered it in constructing “Psycho.” Franz ‘s character is portrayed as a strangely asexual loner with a profound mother complex (there is even a fatuous police psychiatrist, played by Richard Kiley, around to “explain” his compulsion, just like Simon Oakland in “Psycho”). Just like Norman Bates, Eddie is driven to kill as a substitute for sexual fulfillment; he is alternately shyly protective around women (the Janet Leigh figure here is a nightclub pianist played by Marie Windsor) and violently contemptuous, a transformation triggered the instant a woman reveals a hint of sexual desire. Like “Psycho,” “The Sniper” ends with the camera closing in on an astonishing close-up of the killer, though in place of the death’s head grin that Hitchcock would give Norman Bates, Franz’s Eddie releases a single glycerin tear as he looks up at the police detective (a rumpled Adolphe Menjou) who has finally, providentially captured him.
And the detective’s name (no kidding): Lt. Frank Kafka.