Tom Doty Times Columnist
November 22, 2013
A serial killer stalks San Francisco in this film noir that has lost none of its potency and relevance in 63 years.
The story follows a loner, named Miller, as he struggles to fit into civilian life after a stint in prison for assault. We learn that he assaulted a young woman and is struggling with an urge to do so again.
He tries to contact a psychiatrist he saw in jail but the doctor is unavailable . In desperation he burns his hand on a hotplate and tries to steer an emergency room physician towards having him evaluated. Unfortunately, a catastrophe fills the ER with new patients and he is lost in the shuffle.
His job as a delivery man for a laundry service puts him in the orbit of a smoky faced lounge singer. He finds her a little overbearing and undeniably attractive, but it only takes learning that she has a steady boyfriend to flip his switch. That night, he perches on a rooftop overlooking the bar where she plays piano. A rifle is cradled in his arms. He cold bloodedly shoots the singer as she admires a poster of herself .
The aftermath finds Miller feeling better than ever. He heads out to a tavern and even mingles with a young lady. Sadly, he has little experience in social situations and soon finds himself heading out to kill again and recapture that feeling.
Meanwhile, a pair of detectives get the case and are soon frustrated by a lack of evidence. The victims have no prior relationship. All they know is that the targets were all brunettes in their late 20s.
The city begins to panic. The press keep the story n the front page and Miller begins to feel even more powerful with all of the attention. The detectives decide to bring in a psychiatrist and learn some frightening facts. The odds are they have already arrested this guy for a violent act against a woman and now he is escalating.
A break comes when Miller leaves the bandage from his burned hand at a crime scene. The police track down Miller’s identity. His landlady and his supervisor at the store confirm elements of his character that jibe with what the psychiatrist warned them to look for in their search. The bad news is that Miller never reported to work that morning and is primed to ramp up his activity as his self-control evaporates.
This is a scary movie because it can, and has happened. The “Scorpio Killer” would haunt the same city 20 years later. Did he see the film? We’ll probably never know, but the same issues that torment Miller are issues today.
In the wake of tragic shootings in the last decade, there has been a renewed call for early intervention and treatment by mental health professionals. That’s all well and good, but there hasn’t been follow through. There is a passionate plea by the film’s psychiatrist character for getting help for people who show signs of psychosis at a young age, but he is shut down by city officials over issues of cost and freedom.
No doubt about it, this is a smart movie. It is also a tense thriller that never gets too talky while still illuminating issues that merit discussion. Edward Dymtryk directs and give the film a documentary quality that heightens the realism. This was his first film after being blacklisted for not naming names during the Red Scare in Hollywood.
The lead performance by Arthur Franz, as Miller, is fearless and the fact that he is killing his mother over and over for mistreating him is a sober and honest assessment of what drives people to commit horrendous acts. It is another plea for early intervention and a compelling argument that children are indeed our future. How society protects them can have a bearing on the future of violent crime.
Best line: “My mother never taught me anything.”