Richard Fleischer’s 1968 film The Boston Strangler is based on a real life horrific string of grisly murders in the Boston area in the early 1960s. Adapted from Gerold Frank’s book of the same name, the film is done in a semi-documentary style, but–as others have noted–it’s still a work of entertainment. As I watched, I found myself enjoying it as a well made film, though I felt uncomfortable at times, reminded that what I was seeing was based in fact.
Released by 20th Century Fox, The Boston Strangler stars Tony Curtis in possibly his most unusual role as Albert DeSalvo–a family man with a dark, dark secret. Henry Fonda co-stars as John S. Bottomly, detective in charge of the special “Strangler Bureau” of the Boston police department, charged with finding the murderer. Surrounding our two leads are a wonderful assortment of great character actors: George Kennedy, Murray Hamilton, Mike Kellin, a young James Brolin, Hurd Hatfield, William Marshall, an early appearance by the great William Hickey (Prizzi’s Honor), as well as the big screen debut of Sally Kellerman.
The Boston Strangler is split into two parts. The first half focuses on the murders and the manhunt to track down the killer. The film gives us a docu-style time capsule into the attitudes and social mores of the era. As the “Strangler Bureau” begins their investigation they start by rounding up all the “perverts” (a sad nomenclature of the times) as the victims were all sexually assaulted. Roudning up all the “perverts” meant visiting all the gay bars in town. (This was the 1960s after all).
After running down checks on a whole cross section of people, the Bureau get desperate and brings in a psychic to see if they can shed any light. The psychic leads them to a man in true need of help (William Hickey) who “defiles” women’s handbags, sleeps on a box spring–no mattress–and bathes himself with toliet water as a form of punishment. As aberrant as his behavior may be, he’s not the strangler.
It’s not until an hour in that we meet DeSalvo, when the film shifts its tone from being a broad manhunt, to things closing in around him. Once captured and linked, Fonda’s Bottomly begins to talk to DeSalvo, leading him towards confession. One of the most impressive elements of the film is how Fleischer handles the Panavision frame, filling it with multiple split screens. This device is enhanced by a three channel stereo track that one assumes was created for its original 70mm showings. This audio is included on the disc as a DTS-HD MA track, along with the standard 2.0 Stereo track.
If you’re fortunate to have surround sound, I can’t stress enough how much you should watch The Boston Strangler in 3.0 DTS-HD MA. The sound jumps around when the screen splits, shifting from left to right to center depending on where the prominent action is taking place.
The acting is terrific, with Tony Curtis giving an excellent performance that garnered him a Golden Globe nom. Director Fleischer does a wonderful job dealing with absolutely horrible subject material. Fleischer, son of famed cartoonist Max Fletcher, had a varied career, from family friendly fare like Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to gruesome entries like The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place.
Twilight Time brings The Boston Strangler to blu-ray with a fantastic looking 1080p image of its 2:35.1 frame. I can’t imagine seeing it panned and scanned. Cropping any part of the frame would ruin the intricate split screen work. The colors are solid, the image has light grain pattern. It’s a very solid presentation.
Twilight Time has done a fine job putting together bonus material as well. The disc has commentary track by historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros, an isolated music and effects track, a newsreel, original trailers, several featurettes and an AMC backstory special.
The Boston Strangler is an extremely well crafted film. My only hesitation in recommending it is the graphic nature of the real crimes, but if you’ve been waiting for the film to have it’s due on home video, your time has come.