Friday Flashback: The Boston Strangler (1968)

Based on a true story, The Boston Strangler follows the police investigation of the notorious serial killer responsible for killing 13 innocent women in the city of Boston. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the film does a fine job of capturing the gritty and seedier streets of Boston as the police (led by Geroge Kennedy as Detective DiNatale) go from crime scene to crime scene hunting down their man. Fleischer utilizes some interesting camera work for this movie, especially his use of split screens throughout the film.

The movie stars Henry Fonda as John Bottomly, the chief detective who is ordered to take over this investigation, which has (for good reason) thrown the public and the media into an absolute tizzy. Playing the intriguing role of the strangler, Albert DeSalvo is none other than Tony Curtis. Because he was mostly associated with light comedic fare at the time, it took a lot for the studio to finally give the greenlight to casting Curtis in the chilling role of DeSalvo. Originally, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty were attached. So it came as quite the surprise to all when it was announced that Tony Curtis would be playing the iconic serial killer. And he does a wonderful job too! We don’t even see him until one full hour into the film, and by that time, the build-up to revealing the killer is overwhelming – but Curtis doesn’t disappoint. He is a family man and our first look at him is sitting in his modest living room staring at the coverage of JFK’s funeral on TV, with his young daughter on his lap. Then, we see him spring into action and get a glimpse of what makes this guy tick.

When DeSalvo is captured by police for an entirely different matter, the court realizes that he is ill and place him in a hospital to be examined and diagnosed. Clues are pieced together and Bottomly and DiNatale realize that they have their man. The scenes where Fonda is interrogating Curtis are enthralling to watch. The doctor explains to the police that DeSalvo may be genuinely sick – that he has two distinct personalities and the working family man literally has no idea of the unspeakable acts he has committed – so Bottomly must tread lightly in his questioning or DeSalvo will burst. Curtis is great in these interrogation scenes… he doesn’t overdo it at all and is quite subtle in his actions. The viewer can’t really tell if he is faking it or if he is truly ill.

The Boston Strangler is a very interesting watch, with a smart script by Edward Anhalt, based on the book by Gerold Frank. The camerawork and some of the techniques utilized draw you in even more than the gripping story already does. Though critical reception was mixed at the time of release, I think the movie has received much wider acceptance and appreciation over time. I’d recommend it just to see Curtis’ fine work which shows off his range. The last image that we see as the end credits appear is haunting and lingers in your mind long after – we see Albert DeSalvo standing in the corner of an all-white room – by himself, no musical accompaniment, as the camera slowly fades back and gets whiter and whiter.

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