A barking dog told Judge Paul Corupe to give this serial killer flick a positive review. Wait, that's a reference to the wrong serial killer...
Why did 13 women willingly open their doors to the Boston Strangler?
The Boston Strangler is based on the true story of Albert DeSalvo, who allegedly terrorized the Boston area from 1962 until 1964, raping and killing more than a dozen women. In each case, he strangled his victims with a piece of clothing, afterwards tying it into a decorative bow around their necks—a unique M.O. that branded him as "The Boston Strangler" by the police detectives who relentlessly attempted to track him down. Coming just four years after the horrific serial murders took place, Richard Fleischer's artistically-shot interpretation of the events is an overlooked slice of late '60s American cinema that will hopefully win new fans now that it has finally made its way to DVD.
Facts of the Case
When Detective Phil DiNatale (George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke) and the Boston police force come up empty-handed after a series of older women are found strangled to death, special investigator John Bottomly (Henry Fonda, Once Upon a Time in the West) is assigned to the case. Bottomly refocuses the investigation and every known sex offender is brought in, but still nothing seems to add up. Desperate and short on clues, the police get a big break when one victim (Sally Kellerman, M*A*S*H) manages to escape alive and give the police enough information to pick up a furnace repairman named Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis, Spartacus). Even though they think they have their man, the film is far from over as Bottomly faces his biggest challenge yet—to find out why DeSalvo might have done it.
More of a police procedural than a crime thriller in the strictest sense of the term, The Boston Strangler is a slickly-made little serial killer drama that takes us from the investigation to interrogation in the pursuit of the elusive strangler. The film weaves a web of paranoia over the viewer in the first half, before director Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) shifts gears significantly for the lengthy conclusion, which has Bottomly and DeSalvo squaring off in an attempt to understand each other. Rather than the harsh indictment of crime the graphic story seems to be setting up, the end is a surprisingly open-minded look at the psychology of murder.
It's difficult to appreciate the way The Boston Strangler pushed boundaries in 1968, as the violence and sexual content could probably pass on an episode of Law and Order today, but at a time when the MPAA had just been formed, this certainly would have raised a few eyebrows. Despite some stylized visuals, the disconcerting subject of The Boston Strangler, often frankly discussed by the police during their investigation, is a distinct move toward the disturbing realism made common by the stark police thrillers in the 1970s. This film was highly influential on superior cop films like The French Connection, not to mention future serial killer films like Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs, and they couldn't ask for a more distinguished pedigree.
Although he doesn't actually show up in the film until the second act, Tony Curtis is simply unbelievable as Albert DeSalvo. This is easily Curtis's most enthralling acting performance, and he switches from cold and calculating to confused and disoriented with amazing deftness and skill. Made up with a prosthetic nose and weighted clothes to approximate DeSalvo's blue-collar lurch, Curtis plays completely against type and comes across virtually unrecognizable from his lighter, fluffier roles. Again anticipating the 1970s crime thrillers, the film's Boston precinct is also stocked with craggy-faced character actors doing their best to replicate "real" police detectives, far-from-perfect cops whose prejudices and bullying tactics often come into play during the course of the film. George Kennedy is typically excellent, although Henry Fonda's relatively gentle law school professor John Bottomly seems a little out of place in his brash environment—even though he is the first cop to punch out a suspect! The always enjoyable William Hickey (Prizzi's Honor) also deserves mention as a self-loathing ladies' purse fetishist who comes under suspicion when the police get desperate enough to consult a psychic.
There are several instances in the film during which Fleischer employs a split screen, multi-panel approach to tell the story, a controversial technique influenced by the multimedia displays that the director witnessed at Expo '67 in Montreal. The directional effects are really designed for the big screen, and on DVD, the results are mixed depending on the subject. They work best when used to achieve a montage effect, as when about ten panels are simultaneously used to show the police arresting and questioning the known sex offenders. When Fleischer simplifies to two or three screens to show DeSalvo advancing on his prey, it tends to work against the natural tension by giving the viewer too many things to look at. Fleischer does keep his use of the technique to a minimum, though, and it never becomes too wearisome.
Generally, The Boston Strangler looks pretty good on Fox's new DVD release. Free of any dust dirt or scratches, it's obvious that some restoration work went into the film, and the transfer looks all the better for it. Color is nicely and realistically rendered, with good shadow detail. The film has also finally been presented in its full 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen glory, superceding earlier home video releases that made nonsense out of Fleischer's split screens. With only a few directional effects, the Dolby Stereo soundtrack doesn't offer a big advantage over the included Mono version; however, both versions have clear dialogue, and are not subject to any annoying audio artifacts.
There are only a few extras here, but they're quite good. After watching the original theatrical trailer, you can catch a short, almost soundless, Fox Movietone Newsreel, parts of which are recreated in the film. An included episode of AMC's Backstory fills in the production details, and features interviews with all the important players, including Curtis. It's a great addition, and I'd like to see more episodes of this well-made show presented as DVD extras. The only thing conceivably missing from the special features is a little more discussion of the DeSalvo case, but since the film does take a few liberties with the story, and it has never been conclusively proven that DeSalvo was in fact the Strangler, perhaps this isn't such a bad thing after all.
If you can get past the gimmicky split screen effects and accept them as
"of their time," you'll be surprised to find that The Boston
Strangler is an overlooked treat worth investigating, if only for Curtis'
masterful performance as Albert DeSalvo.
Just as DeSalvo himself was never charged with the murders, The Boston Strangler slips through the fingers of justice and is once again loose on the streets. Look out!
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Scales of Justice
• "The Boston Strangler" AMC Backstory Featurette
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