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THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968)

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"If you force Albert the family man to acknowledge the existence of Albert the strangler, he’ll go over the edge."
"We haven’t come up with one single piece of evidence that can be used in court. No fingerprints, no witnesses, no nothing. It’s the only direction I can take now."
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Director: Richard Fleischer

Starring: Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Murray Hamilton, Sally Kellerman, Jeff Corey, William Marshall, Hurd Hatfield

Screenplay: Edward Anhalt, based upon the book by Gerold Frank

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Synopsis: In the early 1960s, Boston is being terrorised by a psychotic killer who is strangling, mauling and sometimes sexually assaulting his female victims. The hunt for the murderer is hampered by the fact that the varying locations of the crimes means that a number of different police departments are involved. The Attorney General, Edward W. Brooke (George Marshall), asks legal scholar John S. Bottomly (Henry Fonda) to head a "Strangler Bureau", so that the investigation can be coordinated. Considering himself purely a theorist, Bottomly is extremely reluctant, but allows himself to be persuaded. As the killings continue, Bottomly and his detectives Phil DiNatale (George Kennedy) and Frank McAfee (Murray Hamilton) are forced by the total absence of any firm physical evidence to take increasingly difficult steps, rounding up anyone with a history of sex offences, and even consulting a psychic, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the killer, Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis), fails in his attempt upon the life of a young woman named Dianne Cluny (Sally Kellerman). His victim fights back desperately, inflicting a savage bite upon DeSalvo’s hand. Chased off, DeSalvo tries to find another victim, but chooses the wrong apartment and ends up under arrest for break and entry. Placed in hospital by a judge who doubts his mental condition, DeSalvo comes to the attention of Bottomly and DiNatale when they realise that his hand injury could mean that he is the killer. In the absence of corroborating evidence, and since Dianne Cluny is unable to identify her assailant, Bottomly is forced into a dangerous game of cat and mouse in order to force DeSalvo to acknowledge the killer inside himself.

Comments: In filming The Boston Strangler, director Richard Fleischer was faced with the challenge of taking a case with which the whole of America was intimately familiar, and making it into a suspenseful story. This task was brilliantly achieved through the use of a series of highly innovative in-camera techniques, and also through the performances of the film’s two stars, Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda. As Albert DeSalvo, Curtis gives one of the two or three best performances of his entire career. Although not appearing on screen until halfway through the film, Curtis dominates the final sequences, giving a performance remarkable for its intensity, its attention to fine detail, and above all its restraint. In a role where going over the top would have been terribly easy, Curtis underplays brilliantly, becoming ever more silent and still as he begins to confront his other, murderous self. Matching Curtis all the way is Henry Fonda as John Bottomly who, while forcing DeSalvo to recognise the truth, also comes to recognise some unpalatable facts about himself. While dealing with the deadly schizophrenic who knows not what he has done, the supposedly detached, intellectual and scholarly Bottomly discovers within himself a streak of blood lust as he finds himself enjoying his hunt for a killer. For all the horrors depicted throughout the film, the single most chilling moment in The Boston Strangler is when Bottomly, informed that his actions could put DeSalvo into permanent catatonia, replies coolly, "That’s the next best thing to a conviction." The use of mirrors throughout the film is extraordinary. It is by seeing himself in his victim’s mirror that DeSalvo is stopped in the middle of a deadly assault. Later, there is a wonderful moment when, with their suspect confined in a room with a two-way mirror, Bottomly and his detectives are able to watch DeSalvo watching himself. Best of all, though, is the final revelatory sequence when director Fleischer brilliantly employs reflection and cross-cutting to reveal the duality of both the killer and his interrogator. More flashy, though equally effective, are the other experimental techniques utilised in the early stages of the film: split- and multi-screens, jump cutting and mock news broadcasts effectively convey the sense of panic engulfing the city of Boston as the killings continue. Clever, too, is the superimposition of a questioning John Bottomly throughout DeSalvo’s ultimate recollection of his crimes, while the use of genuine news footage, that of a parade for the Project Mercury astronauts (including John Glenn!) and of John F. Kennedy’s funeral, gives the whole film a tangible sense of time and place. Due to this almost documentary approach, The Boston Strangler functions as a kind of time capsule, revealing unquestionably suspect police conduct and social attitudes that have (or at any rate, should have) long since passed away. Despite the blatantly heterosexual nature of the crimes, the police are seen targeting the homosexual community, reasoning that a deviant is responsible, and all "faggots" are deviants. This section of the film includes a brief but memorable appearance by Hurd Hatfield as a gay suspect (as well as a glimpse inside a sixties gay bar). Although Hatfield’s character is allowed a certain dignity, he is forced to voice embarrassing heterosexual assumptions about the nature of gay relationships, while the depiction of Hatfield’s lesbian landladies is totally distasteful. (That said, The Boston Strangler looks positively pro-gay compared to the contemporary The Detective (1968), which may be the most homophobic film ever made.) Given the contrast between the presentation of Albert DeSalvo himself, who is treated with marked sympathy and an attempt at understanding, and the film’s attitude towards its gay characters and the minor transgressors considered suspects in the early stages of the investigation, it is appropriate in a sick sort of way that the psychotic killer being hunted should turn out to be married and a family man.