‘You and I are just alike, Detective,” says the serial killer to the detective he’s tormenting, in every bad serial-killer-on-the-loose movie.
The scene goes like this: The detective is on the trail of a killer who is terrorizing the city. The mayor and the chief of police are relentlessly pushing him to solve the case, the newspapers have come up with a quirky and spooky nickname for the killer—something like “The Gentleman Slasher” or “The Sagittarius Man”—and suddenly, out of the blue, the phone rings and the patrolman who answers it turns to the detective and says, “Um, sir? I think you’re going to want to take this.”
It’s “The Old Spice Killer”—so named because of the distinctive smell of his aftershave, identified by the nurse who escaped from his car—and he’s called to taunt his nemesis. The squad room is silent as the detective picks up the phone.
“Hello, Detective,” the killer says in an inexplicably plummy accent. “I thank you for taking my call. Most courteous of you. It seems you and I are playing a little game.”
“This isn’t a game.”
“Come, come, Detective,” the killer purrs. “You’re not like the rest of those brutes in blue uniforms. In fact, you and I are just alike.”
“I’m nothing like you!” Shouts the detective, in what psychoanalysts might call a defensive overreaction. “You’re a nut job! A psycho!”
The Sagittarius Man loses his cool—“I will not be disrespected, Detective!”—and hangs up, and everyone is mad at the detective because they didn’t have enough time to trace the call and now The Gentleman Slasher is really angry and still on the loose. The audience is supposed to wonder if maybe the serial killer isn’t on to something. Maybe he and the detective are a lot alike. Maybe he’s not so different from us, either. In a sense, maybe we’re all The Old Spice Killer.
We’re not, of course. Serial killers are a very rare phenomenon, and smart ones who taunt detectives with twee accents are even rarer. In real life, most of us manage not to become serial killers pretty easily. We may get mad at having to log in to certain apps over and over again, or at the way people with backpacks on crowded subway cars swing around heedlessly, but very, very few of us do anything more than silently stew over these things, and except in the case of the people with backpacks on the subway, that’s a good thing.
Movies and television, on the other hand, are positively teeming with psycho killers. It all started, in the movies anyway, in 1931, with Fritz Lang’s brilliantly creepy M, in which a whistling psychopath preys on children in an unnamed German city. Hans Beckert, played by the forever baby-faced Peter Lorre, doesn’t know why he’s driven to entice children with candy and strangle them. When he’s finally trapped and confronted by a vengeful mob, he claims that an interior voice compels him. The mob—made up of gangsters and underworld figures who locate Beckert before the police do—clamors for his execution, but Beckert responds by reminding them that they, too, are murderers and cutthroats—but by choice. He, on the other hand, is merely a victim of his own madness. He deserves pity; they do not. “I’m crazy,” Hans Beckert says, essentially. “What’s your excuse?”
Exactly 20 years later and half a world away, The Sniper put a glossy coat of American technocratic optimism on the psycho-killer genre. A 1952 noir classic, set in the serial-killer capital of the world, San Francisco, The Sniper tells the story of poor Eddie Miller, played by Arthur Franz, who just can’t seem to meet a nice girl. Eddie is awkward and rejected and goes on a killing spree, shooting women from rooftops and windows with an M1 carbine. Adolphe Menjou plays the detective on his trail, but the true hero of the picture is Richard Kiley, who plays Dr. James Kent, a psychologist who insists that Eddie just needs a little help and understanding.
“He’s crazy,” Dr. Kent says, essentially. “But with the tools and techniques of modern psychotherapy, he can be helped.” And what’s amazing is, no one onscreen laughs at that. In America, in 1952, this seemed like a reasonable position. No one looked at Eddie Miller and thought, “He and I are just alike.” Instead, the message of the picture is “I hope the shrink can give him some confidence with the ladies.”
The Sniper is a terrific thriller, despite the irritating naivety of its pro-shrink bias. There are some genuine chills in the murder sequences, and there’s not a better use of San Francisco’s haunted loneliness than director Edward Dmytryk’s spare black-and-white frames.
Jumping another 20 years after The Sniper, a new serial-killer movie burst onto the screen. Also set in San Francisco, Dirty Harry introduced the world to Clint Eastwood’s fearless and fed-up Inspector Harry Callahan. The two movies are so similar, it’s hard to believe that director Don Siegel and at least one of the writers—who included pulp master John Milius and (uncredited) Terrence Malick—hadn’t seen the previous picture. The gripping sequence on the rooftops of Telegraph Hill, where the cops in The Sniper try to stake out the killer, is repeated almost exactly in Dirty Harry. Same city, same crime, same locations—but by 1971 America was a very different place.
By then, everyone knew that psycho nut jobs didn’t need therapy or understanding or encounter groups. In the 20 years between the two pictures, the audience had watched, in their living rooms, riots in the streets, mayhem at My Lai, three major political assassinations, and the Mansons. What they wanted to see on the big screen was Harry Callahan taking out the trash with his .44 Magnum. When the politicians and bureaucrats and eggheads onscreen in Dirty Harry suggest therapy and understanding for the killer, Harry’s lip—and ours—curls up in disgust.
Cut to: 1991, 20 years after Dirty Harry, when America is transfixed by the diabolical genius of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Lecter doesn’t need a shrink; he is a shrink. When he tells hapless FBI agent Clarice Starling that the “world is more interesting with you in it,” she’s actually flattered. He’s not a sexual reject like The Sniper; he’s a cultivated arts patron with a mid-Atlantic accent and some pretty good skills in the kitchen. If he called up any of us and said, “You and I are just alike,” instead of exploding in righteous anger, we’d probably say, “Gosh, thank you! I follow you on Instagram!”
It gets worse. Not quite 20 years after Lecter, we have Joker, the blockbuster movie in which director Todd Phillips and writer Scott Silver rethink the origin of the DC Comics character. What they come up with—he’s bullied and broke and fatherless—manages to put the blame for his insanity squarely on the shoulders of heartless capitalism. Whatever murder and mayhem Joker gets up to, the movie tells us, is our fault and we deserve it. If Joker called up our detective to say, “You and I are just alike,” the answer the movie supplied would be “Oh, no, we’re not alike at all. I am much, much worse!” Which perfectly encapsulates the woke and impotent moment we find ourselves in. What Hannibal Lecter and Joker need—and what I sincerely hope is coming back into vogue—is the disgusted curl of the lip and the unapologetic clarity of Inspector Callahan. Dirty Harry didn’t need a therapist or a Marxist economist to tell him how to handle the crazies.
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