In 1968, when I was twelve-years old, I developed an interest in the Boston Strangler serial killer murders of the early 1960s. Don't really know what it was about this case that sparked my interest but I do recall purchasing and reading the Signet paperback edition of Gerold Frank's bestselling book. It was the first true-crime book I can recall reading and, to be honest, the majority of the material was way above my head. I was way too young to fully process what I read and I was certainly too young to be allowed to see the 1968 film of the same name. But I did.
The film was released on October 16th, 1968 with the label "suggested for mature audiences." Had the film's release been delayed by less than a month, it would have most certainly earned an "R" rating under the newly minted Motion Picture Rating System which went into effect on November 1st of that year with the initial ratings composed of "G", "M", "R" and "X". In fact, the DVD edition of the film that I have now bears the "R" rating. Had the film been rated "R" at the time, my buddy Steve Cook and I would not been allowed admission without a parent or adult guardian. But we were on our own and our money was green at the box office of Austin's Paramount Theatre.
I watched the film yesterday for the first time since that long ago 1968 viewing. It's an extremely compelling film, told in a very matter-of-fact, straightforward approach by screenwriter Edward Anhalt (working from Frank's book) and director Richard Fleischer (who also helmed THE NARROW MARGIN (1952), 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) and SOYLENT GREEN (1973), among many others). Fleischer and cinematographer Richard H. Kline use split/screen and multiple small images all in the same frame to great effect throughout the film. The exteriors were shot on location in Boston and surrounding areas while interiors were filmed at the 20th Century Fox studios.
Tony Curtis, playing against type, stars as Albert DeSalvo, the self-confessed Boston Strangler. It was a brave move for Curtis, who by this point in his career was relegated to romantic comedies, to portray one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. To make things even more daring, Curtis doesn't even appear onscreen until halfway through the film's 116 minute running time.
John S. Bottomly (Henry Fonda) is the head of the "Strangler Bureau", a combined strike force of various law enforcement agencies tasked with finding the killer. He's aided by Detective Phil DiNatale (George Kennedy) and Sgt. Frank McAfee (Murray Hamilton), among others. The investigation leads them into various blind alleys which uncover the seamy and seedy underbelly of Boston. Caught in the dragnet are peeping toms, obscene phone callers, foot fetishists, bottom pinchers, wife beaters and other kooks and weirdos. Boston's underground gay scene is included, in a scene I'm sure went entirely over my head in 1968.
DeSalvo is ultimately caught and his split personality eventually revealed in a series of interrogations by Bottomly. De Salvo was never indicted or convicted for the murders but was incarcerated on rape charges. He died in prison in 1973.
THE BOSTON STRANGLER is a daring piece of film making, using cutting edge visuals and a bold act of counter casting with Curtis in the lead. It's grim, frank and disturbing but never exploitative nor sensationalistic and is definitely worth seeing.