Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A fairly unshocking 'shocker' from the year the new MPAA ratings system was introduced, The Boston
Strangler played its true-life horror angles to the hilt. Tony Curtis is fine as the warped
multiple-personality Albert DeSalvo, but even the docu realism of the film can't disguise its lack
of dramatic punch. Its showy use of split screens hasn't aged well and comes off as a gimmick.
Richard Fleisher can bring a gritty story to Hollywood, but he can't escape the Hollywood gloss.
The Boston Strangler holds the city in terror and confounds special investigator
John S. Bottomley (Henry Fonda), who scours the underside of the city to find him, even
enlisting the help of a professional psychic. His
hardworking detectives bring in every pervert on the books but nothing pans out. It turns out
that their serial killer citizen conforms to none of their pet theories ... and the score is
up to 11 young and old women.
William Friedkin's The French
Connection solved this film's problems three years later. The ex- television documentarian said to
hell with tripods and pretty pictures and shot a lot of his police thriller as if it were being
captured by a news camera. The Boston Strangler sticks to the facts and keeps its
scary story down at the level of the poor victims, little old ladies and single nurses. The women
aren't made to appear cute or attractive, and seem all the more vulnerable for it.
But the narrative drive and slick camerawork work more in the vein of Fox's The Detective
from the same year, minus a jazzy music score. The police are played by familiar actors led by
a bonafide star, Henry Fonda. Fonda does well enough but it isn't the same. The main
detectives on the case are built up with dramatic personalities - George Kennedy is empathetic
to the killings, Murray Hamilton has a smart tongue - but since the screenplay doesn't pay them off
dramatically, they come to naught. The lesson seems to be, if you're going to be a thriller, be
a thriller (The Silence of the Lambs). If you want to be a gritty s docu, drop the dramatic
The 'edgy'content was jarring material at the time for ordinary audiences. Nine years after James
Stewart was finally allowed to say 'panties' in the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, the
cops are throwing around words like semen and faggot to show us this is how real policemen
talk. It's natural enough but the screenplay pulls back from giving the cops more realistic reactions
to the homosexuals and maladjusted kooks they shake down to find their man. Henry Fonda as the chief
investigator personally saunters into a gay bar to interview a homosexual antiques dealer denounced by
a pair of hostile lesbians. The antique dealer turns out to be Hurd Hatfield, Dorian Gray himself. Not exactly
creative casting. Here's the official stance on deviant behavior circa
1968: they're sick, sick, sick ... but the police are an understanding bunch of guys even if they have to
deal with these people on a daily basis. There's not a hint of the corruption that reportedly
ran through every level of big city police work back then.
The best thing in the movie is the pitiful sicko Eugene T. O'Rourke (William Hickey of
Prizzi's Honor), a mournful suspect who
so despises himself that he sleeps on raw bedsprings and "washes himself in the toilet." Kennedy and Hamilton
take that as surefire guilt material, and Hickey's horrified realization that they think he's hurt someone
is extremely well done.
The Boston Strangler's split screens were exciting and different in 1968, and I remember being pleased
by the simo recording of action on both sides of the door of a murder apartment. Now, the split-screen
treatment of investigations and press conferences just seems a trendy way to present ordinary material where a
conventional montage would have sufficed. William Friedkin would simply have dropped or ellipsed such predictable
padding. Film montages work with cuts and develop a rhythm that can compress time. These split screens create
parallel actions from which we have to choose for ourselves what to watch, or just stare at the screen and soak it
all up as a pattern of boxes. Most of us are too busy watching the little mortised boxes move and shift to worry
about their content. Frankenheimer had already worn out the multi-screen gimmick for glossy effect in Grand Prix,
Woodstock would creatively split the screen to jazz up 16mm flat photography for 70mm. Leave it to editor
Robert Wise to finally use the gimmick right, for carefully selected sequences of
The Andromeda Strain.
The Boston Strangler grinds to a dramatic halt with the capture of Albert DeSalvo, played in perfect pitch by
Tony Curtis. Split personalities on film had been mined-out in endless TV rehashes of The Three Faces of Eve, but
Curtis makes DeSalvo interesting enough to watch, even in the obligatory scene: "I discover for myself my evil true
nature by acting
it out." Liv Ullman lookalike Carolyn Conwell as DeSalvo's pathetic wife, and surviving victim Sally Kellerman play
support in a final act that's confined to a couple of rooms and has no real forward motion. That leaves us with the proper
respect for the gravity of the crime, but not feeling particularly entertained.
Jeff Corey is a lawyer, William Marshall a deep-voiced D.A. and John Cameron Swayze lends a familiar voice to radio
announcements. George Voskovec is an annoying psychic who embarrasses a young detective (James Brolin) by divining that
Brolin just came from making love to his wife on the kitchen table. Familiar comedy actor George Furth plays an unlikely
Don Juan, an ordinary guy who somehow manages to seduce a dozen women a week. For the greater part of its time,
The Boston Strangler gets most of its fun by taking a tour of colorful oversexed supporting characters.
The Boston Stranglerlooks really good on this Fox DVD, mastered in an enhanced 2:35 that spreads all the split-screens
out for us to see (the movie died when pan-scanned on television). The extras are a newsreel, a trailer and an AMC
Backstory segment on the making of the movie that spins a cleaned-up version of the crime and its path to the
screen. The fluff meter shoots way up when a filmmaker remembers how "cooperative and down to earth" Henry Fonda was. I read
that as meaning "uninvolved and doing it for the money," although Strangler is one of Fonda's better 60s pictures.
Fox continues to grace most of its library releases with more extras than Paramount and Columbia. I wonder why this
title wasn't considered a "Fox Studio Classic"?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Boston Strangler rates:
Supplements: Backstory episode, trailer, newsreel
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 17, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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