Why did 13 women willingly open their doors to The Boston Strangler?

Between June 14, 1962 and January 4, 1964, thirteen Boston-area women were murdered by a mysterious figure known as “The Boston Strangler.” Most of the murders were similar in nature: the killer had sexually assaulted the women and strangled them to death with their nylon stockings. A man named Albert DeSalvo eventually confessed to the crimes, ending a lengthy period of terror and speculation (though DNA evidence that has surfaced in more recent years has complicated the matter, suggesting that more than one person may have been involved).

Let’s be honest: America gets off on stories like this. We live for stories about serial killers… the kinkier and more deranged, the better. I’m not here to bury the True Crime genre, which has produced plenty of great, thought-provoking works of art. However, the biggest problem with Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler is that it seemingly has no ambition to do anything other than satisfy the surface-level desires of its audience. You want sex and murder? The Boston Strangler is here to give you what you want.

The first hour or so is more or less a collection of stylishly-staged murder scenes and narrative red herrings. The Boston Strangler case was a high-profile news story, and the film seems to respond to this by aiming for shock instead of suspense. The marketing made no attempt to hide the fact that Tony Curtis was playing DeSalvo (he gets top billing even though he’s absent for a pretty long chunk of the movie), so aims to grab our attention in other ways: split-screen murder sequences, edgy-for-the-era dialogue scenes (rape is a frequent topic of discussion), boundary pushing depictions of sex and/or violence, etc.

It’s all pretty slick, and the performances are good, too (particularly from Henry Fonda and George Kennedy as the investigators trying to get to the bottom of this mess). Still, there’s something undeniably hollow about the whole thing, and Fleischer’s disinterest in exploring anything of substance occasionally makes the material feel a little pornographic (never mind the fact that a lot of this is milder than what you’d see on the average episode of CSI these days).

Things get a bit more intriguing once the killer takes center stage, if only because Curtis commits so fully to the part. He strips away the glib charm that defines so many of his characters, digging into layer after layer of tormented psychology until he arrives at DeSalvo’s rotten core. There’s a sequence late in the film in which DeSalvo re-enacts one of the murders, and this quiet piece of one-man theatre proves more unsettling than any of the more graphic material served up previously. Is his work enough to redeem the movie? Not quite, but it’s the closest the film comes to justifying its existence.

The Boston Strangler (Blu-ray) offers a solid 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. The image is a little soft on occasion, but detail is generally pretty good and flesh tones look natural. A moderate amount of natural grain has been left intact, and colors are generally rich and full. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is spare but effective, benefiting from crisp, clean dialogue. Supplements include an audio commentary with film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros, a music-and-effects track, three featurettes (“Split-Screen Personality: William Friedkin on Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler,” “Real Killer, Fake Nose” and “AMC Backstory: The Boston Strangler”), an old Fox Movietone newsreel clip, trailers and a booklet featuring an essay on the film.

The Boston Strangler is a stylish but largely hollow crime procedural that has little to offer aside from an interesting Tony Curtis performance. Even so, the new Blu-ray release is exceptional.

THE VERDICT
Guilty.

Tech Specs

The Boston Strangler (Blu-ray)
, Twilight Time, 116 minutes, R (1968) 
VIDEO: 2.35:1, 1080p  AUDIO: DTS-HD MA 1.0 (English) SUBTITLES: English SDH 
EXTRAS: Audio Commentary, Music-and-Effects Track, Featurettes, Newsreel Clip, Trailers, Booklet   ACCOMPLICES: IMDB

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