The Boston Strangler


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Boston Strangler
"This is a film made entirely from hints and suggestions, red herrings and glimpses of a world in which nothing is orderly."

Why did 13 women open their doors to the Boston Strangler? That's the question Richard Fleischer sets out to answer in this, the first of his genre-redefining serial killer films. Of course, there may actually have been more than 13 women and it's by no means certain that the man to whom the crimes are herein ascribed actually killed anybody, but that doesn't much matter because what Fleischer gets is underneath the skin of Boston itself, whereupon his questions become much more challenging.

In 1964, former soldier and known criminal Albert DeSalvo was arrested on suspicion of housebreaking and subsequently confessed to the stranglings which had terrorised the city. His descriptions of the crime scenes impressed police, but there were notable inaccuracies, and due to the lack of any physical evidence he was never convicted. Fleischer hints at these aspects of the story as police officers discuss the danger of false confessions, yet with his Albert, played by Tony Curtis in a role which finally freed him from his pretty boy image, there is no real suggestion of doubt. Instead, Fleischer focuses on trying to get inside the mind of a man who would act in such a way.

Whilst the central ambiguity around Albert is lost, it is replaced by multiple others. We have the suggestion of multiple personality disorder, fashionable pop psychology at the time, yet the suggestion that there were in fact multiple killers is ignored; what's interesting is that that suggestion, and much of the criticism aimed at the film on its release, hung on ideas about serial killers which have themselves been debunked, over time - among them the supposed uniformity and single-mindedness that problematised the haphazard stranglings. Despite the sharp focus of the film's entirely fictional second half, in which the imprisoned Albert goes head to head with Henry Fonda's determined investigator, this is a film made entirely from hints and suggestions, red herrings and glimpses of a world in which nothing is orderly. It surreptitiously undermines its own constructed narrative, leaving the attentive viewer as adrift as Albert is in the desperate final scene.

The film was also criticised, in its time, for salaciousness, not just in its choice of subject but in its presentation of Boston as a city. Looking back on it from a modern perspective it's difficult to relate to this. For the most part, Fleischer only shows us the aftermath of the killings, framed through the horror of people discovering their loved ones; glimpses of parted knees and limp arms present us with human beings made objects, invoking an acute sense of loss. He lets us see one victim ahead of what happens - a choice he makes again in 10 Rillington Place - using our certainty of her fate to build suspense, but the mundane nature of her activities, the plainness of his approach, is focused on identification more than titillation.

Where the reactions of critics are perhaps more understandable, and less forgiveable, is in relation to the drawing out of what might then have been seen as the city's dark underside. The gay and lesbian characters, the suggestion that elderly women might still desire sex, the fetishists, the sex workers, all with their own connections to the story. Fleischer's boldest move is his exploration of an early police decision to bring in all known sex criminals for questioning, no matter how petty their offences are deemed to be. Suddenly men are being taken in for making abusive phone calls, for groping women at bus stops, for hitting their wives - and we are looking straight on at how much crime generally goes ignored. Ironically, the women of the city are probably safer overall during this crackdown; and returning to the question of why they opened their doors, as male characters stress how frightened they must be, Fleischer provides a hint of what women are used to having to take in their stride.

Even on these terms, the film is not entirely successful. The use of split-screen techniques has dated badly and is likely to make viewers laugh at entirely the wrong moments. The uneven pacing, artistically appropriate though it may be, sometimes works against its subject, making viewers too likely to look away. Still, The Boston Strangler is an intriguing and underrated film with a great deal to say. Like its subject, it might really be something else entirely.

Editor's note: on the 12th of July 2013, DNA evidence emerged that appears to confirm Albert DeSalvo was guilty of at least one of the crimes attributed to the Boston Strangler. DeSalvo died in prison in 1973.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2013
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A fictionalised take on the story of the notorious serial killer and rapist.

Director: Richard Fleischer

Writer: Edward Anhalt, based on the book by Gerold Frank

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

Year: 1968

Runtime: 116 minutes

Country: US


EIFF 2013

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10 Rillington Place