Written by Edward Anhalt, based on the book by Gerald Frank
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Starring Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, George Kennedy, Sally Kellerman
- Featurette: AMC Backstory “The Boston Strangler”
- Fox Movietone Newsreel
Released by: Fox Home Video.
My Advice: Rent it.
Albert DeSalvo (Curtis) is your average working stiff. Has the wife, two kids, has a good job as a repairman. Fairly typical resident for early 60s Boston with the notable exception that he brutally mutilates and strangles women. His actions caused a panic and a media circus when woman after woman was found murdered. Even with everyone on high alert, women let him in to their apartments because he looked normal enough and anyway, there was something to be fixed. As the bodies piled up, a special Strangler Bureau was set up to coordinate the investigation. Headed by Assistant Attorney General John S. Bottomly (Fonda), he coordinated all the clues and leads from the various police departments. Still, lead after lead dries up, even the psychic they hire wound up to be a bust. With a mistake made by De Salvo, though, and simple luck, the detectives found their man. But with no admissive evidence, they can’t make a case. While De Salvo is committed for observation, Bottomly begins a dialogue where he forces De Salvo to see the truth of his madness. Will Bottomly succeed and what will happen to De Salvo if he does?
[ad#longpost]I know what some of you are thinking, “Not another serial killer movie.” Yes, the serial killer is to crime thrillers as vampires are to horror, made mundane by overuse. But it is useful to go back to the early works of a genre to get a sense of the genre before it became weighed down with pop culture baggage. For instance, there’s no “profiler” telling the cops about the killer’s motivation or anticipating the next victim. There’s also no forensics to help the police or give a reason to show cool computer graphics. This is straight police procedural, working leads and verifying alibis that don’t pan out. But this is more avant-garde than Dragnet. The filmmakers make use of split-screen to give multiple viewpoints of a scene, but this technique’s execution is a bit hit or miss. For the scenes where the population of Boston is reacting to the killer in their midst, this helps show a greater breadth than the traditional montage. Scenes of gun purchases, doors with multiple locks, and women traveling in packs stack together further adding to the confusion the city felt. But when the screen is split between De Salvo and one of his victims, your attention is divided so you can’t focus on either.
Another big difference between this movie and the serial killer flicks we get now is the two main characters, the hunter and the hunted. Unlike the hard driving detectives who obsess over a case, Bottomly doesn’t want the job. He’s pushed into it by his bosses. He also doesn’t magically intuit clues about the killer with the customary oddly shot flashback. He keeps hitting brick walls and dead ends. He does however take justice into his own hands when he confronts De Salvo and gets him to confront the truth. Curtis takes an interesting tack on De Salvo by not playing him as so psychologically warped his madness is near operatic in scale, like something out of Seven. He also plays him as an average Joe, not a brilliant super genius like Lecter. He’s just this guy who, when stressed by life, instead of having a beer or going to a strip club, he brutally attacks and strangles women. By being average, he manages to get pass women’s danger sense and leaves little evidence, not because he’s smart, he’s just lucky. In a way, that makes De Salvo scarier. The most interesting take on De Salvo from the film is that it doesn’t explore why he does what he does. Screenwriters take perverse pleasure in dreaming up the horrific childhoods that create serial killers. But the movie doesn’t bother. I wonder if that was a conscious decision of the filmmakers or if that simply wasn’t a feature of the serial killer genre at the time.
While that question isn’t answered, the AMC Backstory episode does deal with the several aspects of the movie. Many thought the film couldn’t be made due to the sexual violence of the Stalker’s crimes, many were unsure of the innovative split-screen techniques, and they were damn near incredulous about having Tony Curtis as De Salvo. However, as the episode shows, everything came together to make a successful film that even the censors liked. There is also a news reel about the Strangler case, but some of the audio is missing. I wonder why they couldn’t find a transcript and put in some subtitles. The silent images leave you a little bewildered. Admittedly the extras aren’t numerous, but I’d still rent The Boston Strangler for a different take on the serial killer.