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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.
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 constructions.
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, and 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