Boston Strangler, The (1968)

The Boston Strangler (1968), directed by Richard Fleischer.

This was controversial at the time, released just four years after the last of thirteen horrific rape-mutilation-murders. At the time Albert DeSalvo was in prison for other crimes and never tried for the murders themselves. He was paid for his story, something that would not be allowed after the "Son of Sam" killings in the 1970s. He was murdered in prison in 1973.

Quoting Roger Ebert from the wikipedia article:


The Boston Strangler requires a judgment not only on the quality of the film (very good), but also on its moral and ethical implications... The events described in Frank's book have been altered considerably in the film. This is essentially a work of fiction 'based' on the real events. And based on them in such a way to entertain us, which it does, but for the wrong reasons, I believe. This film, which was made so well, should not have been made at all.

The first hour is entirely police procedural with a rich set of character actors of that era, including George Kennedy, William Marshall (one of the great voices of the century), William Hickey and introducting Sally Kellerman. Henry Fonda is the academic administrator drafted to lead the task force.

Round up the usual perverts, and we get a view of phone tracing when it meant actually looking at the mechanical switching equipment.

Why do the women keep letting him in? Is it strange he started with old women and moved to young ones? His victims are all white, until they are not.

They actually brought in a famous "psychic detective".

It is an hour before we get to Tony Curtis as DeSalvo and there is no doubt that he is the killer. The confirmation phase of the hunt is particularly exciting: closing in, the times keep matching.

Curtis is convincing in the role but it didn't do anything to establish him as a dramatic actor. Despite films like The Defiant Ones (1958) and especially Sweet Smell of Success (1957) he was never taken seriously.

The arrest and questioning are particularly fictionalized. A whole "multiple personality" plot is invented, where the killer is not even aware of his crimes. Nothing like that was ever suggested in the real case. The dramatic flow slows considerably in the last half hour, which is all about working on the prisoner, his dawning realization of what he has done.

This fits with the director's other true-crime pictures -- Compulsion (1959) and 10 Rillington Place (1971) -- where he is interested in insanity and the psychological states of the offenders.

Fleischer makes considerable use of the multi-pane screens which we saw in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). DePalma used the technique for a while but it didn't catch on in feature films. It has its uses: multiple views of the same tense scene, or contrasting juxtapositions, or just a presentation of how much is going on in a busy city at any one time.

At one time we had much speculation that DeSalvo gave a false confession. Later DNA analysis showed he did the final murder. Did he do all the murders attributed to him? Unknown.

Available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.