Director Richard Fleischer's use of split-screen and multi-pane imagery in his crime drama The Boston Strangler is both novel and overwhelming at times. This visual assault does capture the frenzied energy and palpable fear of a city on edge because a madman has killed several elderly women. The 1968 film, with its screenplay by Edward Anhalt, tackles some very grisly murders, laced with sexual undertones, and stars Henry Fonda as investigator John S. Bottomly. He leads a special division of the police department assigned to triage the increasingly unpredictable killer's crime scenes, and crosses paths with several men with curious proclivities who may or may not be the Strangler. One suspect is Albert DeSalvo, played by Tony Curtis, who is caught breaking into an apartment but is deemed incompetent to stand trial for that crime. The Boston Strangler plays Curtis against type, and the actor does a fine job in a complex role.
The first half of the film plays out like a police procedural and crime thriller. Bottomly and his fellow detectives bring in every "pervert" and "fag" on the books who fit their idea of what the Strangler should be. This type of frank, investigation-room language is brazenly crass but authentic, and one of the early revelations is that the poor men dragged into interrogations are both wholly innocent and completely appalled at the idea of hurting anyone. The Strangler turns out to be someone very different from the detectives' paint-by-numbers serial killer profile, and the second half of the film turns into a psychological drama. It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that Curtis' DeSalvo becomes the prime suspect when it is discovered that the man has a split personality. Bottomly then explores the depths of DeSalvo's depravity in several intense and surreal sequences that set the film apart from the era's numerous crime dramas.
Curtis is best known for his role in Spartacus, and saw his career slump during the 1960s, when he took a number of undemanding roles in comedies and light dramas. He was certainly not the obvious choice to play a mentally disturbed madman, but he gives a subtle, intense performance, convincing the audience that the two halves of DeSalvo truly are in ignorant opposition to one another. Bottomly surmises that DeSalvo will likely never stand trial for his crimes, and views long-term commitment as the next best alternative. The man's attorney (Jeff Corey) agrees to permit extended psychiatric evaluations on the condition that none of the information can be used in court. These begin straightforward and without embellishment. Fleischer also does not glamorize the sex and violence, and instead achieves a gritty realism by using mostly unknown actors in supporting roles. The victims are nurses, teachers and spinsters, and each is as unsuited for the terror as the next.
In one interesting sequence, DeSalvo discovers his misdeeds under Bottomly's guidance. Fleischer uses several film stocks and jarring cuts between the present, past, and a heightened reality dreamed up by DeSalvo. This injects energy into the film just as it begins to drag in the final act. Also of note are performances by Carolyn Conwell, as DeSalvo's suffering wife; Hurd Hatfield, as a wealthy art collector and homosexual presented sensibly and without the fantastical mannerisms reserved for gay characters in the 1960s; and Sally Kellerman, playing the killer's only surviving victim. The Boston Stranger is a unique, interesting take on relatively common story. The visual ticks are mostly effective, and both the direction and acting are strong.
The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image preserves the theatrical aspect ratio (I imagine this looks absolutely dreadful in any cropped iteration.) and offers wonderful clarity and depth. The print is almost entirely free of defects and debris, and most impressive is the smooth blending between the many frames, which could have easily shown wear and tear. Fine-object detail is strong, and backgrounds are impressively detailed. Colors are tight and nicely saturated, and black levels are inky.
Twilight Time provides both 3.0 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mixes, and each is impressive. The movie uses plenty of directional dialogue and effects to match the multi-image photography, and the surrounds provide assistance with this task. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and I noticed no hiss or distortion. English SDH subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Released as part of Twilight Time's Limited Edition Series, The Boston Strangler's Blu-ray run is limited to 3,000 copies. The disc is packed in a clear case that includes a booklet with an essay, photos and film posters. Extras include a good Commentary by Historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros; an Isolated Score Track in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio; and Split-Screen Personality (22:21/HD), which is actually an interview with William Friedkin, who was set to direct the film at one point. You also get Real Killer, Fake Nose (31:15/HD), with interviews from the cinematographer, the director's son and Kellerman; AMC Backstory: The Boston Strangler (21:30/SD), a decent vintage piece; a Fox Movietone Newsreel (3:27/SD); and the Teaser (0:46/HD) and Theatrical (2:55/HD) trailers.
Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis give strong performances as a Boston detective and a suspect in the Strangler killings. Richard Fleischer's film is visually arresting and dramatically interesting, with unique changes in tone and direction around the halfway point. Twilight Time's Blu-ray is excellent, and includes a host of bonus features. Highly Recommended.