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The Boston Strangler

The Boston Strangler(1968)

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Between June 1962 and January 1964, Boston became the focus of the national news media due to a serial killer on the loose known as "The Boston Strangler." Thirteen women were sexually assaulted and strangled and no prime suspects had emerged. Even at the height of the investigation and manhunt, unsuspecting victims still opened their doors to a stranger and fell prey to him, indicating his ability to pass as a non-threatening individual and win the trust of the women who let him in. Events took an unexpected turn on October 27, 1964, when a woman survived an attack and was able to provide a detailed description of her assailant. He was soon identified as Albert DeSalvo, a recent prison parolee who had been serving time for sexual assault. When his photograph was published in newspapers, numerous women came forward with claims that he had assaulted them. At first DeSalvo confessed he was only guilty of breaking and entering and rape and was not the strangler. Yet, once he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and not competent to stand trial, he was committed to Boston State Hospital and it was there that he confessed to the murders.

No conclusive evidence was ever discovered that would link DeSalvo to the stranglings, despite his confession that revealed telling details about the victims and their apartments. Instead he was sentenced to life imprisonment for burglaries and sexual assaults that occurred before the serial killings began. No one was ever officially charged with the thirteen murders and the truth about DeSalvo's actual involvement will never be known.

Gerold Frank's non-fiction book on the subject, The Boston Strangler was a painstakingly researched and comprehensive account of the case, depicting the many dead ends and frustrated attempts by the police to capture the killer. It quickly became a bestseller and was no surprise when 20th Century Fox bought the book rights with the intention of turning it into a major motion picture.

The film version of The Boston Strangler (1968), however, faced several challenges on the way to the screen. For one, the producers would have to condense a massive amount of information and important details about the case to avoid making a movie that would exceed a two hour running time and become a difficult sell to exhibitors. And as usual with any Hollywood movie based on real events, some creative liberties would be taken for dramatic reasons.

The Boston Strangler ran into problems right from the beginning after the movie's producer, Robert Fryer, offered the screenplay to his friend, Terence Rattigan, the acclaimed British playwright who had penned the stage hits The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables. Richard Fleischer, who was already committed to the film as the director, noted in his autobiography that he realized Rattigan was the wrong person for the task at their first meeting, which also included the producer and Frank, the author of the bestseller. Fleischer recalled that there was one detail "that seemed to fascinate Rattigan, and he kept coming back to time and again: the size of the Boston Strangler's penis...he'd ask, "Do you think there was anything unusual about it?"....For a literary man he seemed inordinately concerned about a dangling participle."

Fleischer's worst suspicions about Rattigan's suitability as screenwriter were confirmed when he and Robert Fryer received the script: "This totally confused treatment bore very little relationship to the book. Worse still, and most puzzling, it was written as a comedy!...Then, to top it all off (he must have thought this would be a wow when he wrote it), he had a computer come up with the name of the chief suspect for the grisly crimes, and it turned out to be Darryl Zanuck!" Rattigan was quickly relieved of this duties and replaced by Edward Anhalt (The Member of the Wedding [1952], Becket [1964]), who delivered a screenplay that was much more faithful to Frank's nonfiction account.

Almost as frustrating as the filmmakers' experience with Terence Rattigan was the search for the right actor to play the title serial killer. Most of Hollywood's top leading actors at the time were mentioned as possibilities before Fleischer approached Tony Curtis. The actor was experiencing a decline in his popularity and was desperate to break out of the romantic comedy rut he had fallen into with such fair-to-middling efforts as Boeing(707) Boeing (707) (1965), Not with My Wife, You Don't! (1966), Arrivederci, Baby! (1966) and Don't Make Waves (1967) in his wake. Fleischer already knew that Richard Zanuck, head of Fox, would not approve Curtis for the role because of the actor's stereotyped screen image so he advised Curtis to change his appearance.

In his memoirs, American Prince, Curtis wrote, "Knowing what DeSalvo looked like, I got some putty and worked it onto the bridge of my nose, so it looked broken. I mussed up my hair and put dark makeup around my eyes. Then, holding a camera at arm's length from my body, I took photos of myself as though I was being booked in a police station: profile and front-facing."

The ruse worked brilliantly. When Fleischer told Zanuck that he had found the perfect actor for the role and showed him the Curtis mug shots, the mogul agreed and then asked who the actor was. Despite his surprise, he agreed to the casting and Curtis began to inhabit his character: "I went out and bought brown contact lenses to hide my blue eyes. I put on about fifteen pounds and I used ankle weights to change the way I walked. I wore a pea coat, a stocking cap, jeans and big, heavy boots. Up to that point I had mostly played the romantic love interest, but I knew there was no reason I couldn't play a psychopath."

In the meantime, Fleischer assembled a top notch cast that included Henry Fonda as Assistant Attorney General John S. Bottomly, who is appointed head of the Special Division of Crime Research and Detection that oversaw the investigation of the Boston Strangler case, William Marshall as Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke, who assigned Bottomly to the case, George Kennedy as Detective Phil DiNatale, Murray Hamilton as Detective Frank McAfee, George Voskovec as renowned Dutch psychic Peter Hurkos, Hurd Hatfield as a sexual deviant suspect and Sally Kellerman in a breakout supporting performance as a victim who survives an attack and is able to help identify DeSalvo from the bite mark she inflicted on his hand.

At the time Curtis was filming The Boston Strangler, he was having marital problems with his wife, Christine Kaufmann. The actor admitted that he channeled some of the rage and jealousy he was feeling toward his wife into his performance and was often irritable and moody on the set. At the same time, Curtis complained that "Henry Fonda was very cold to me, or so it seemed to me." The two actors had once traveled in the same social circles and were friendly but during production on The Boston Strangler, Curtis wrote that Fonda "hardly talked to me at all. Maybe he treated me that way because he was intent on staying in character....I tried hard not to be offended by Henry's remoteness, but at times it was a real struggle."

One of the most distinctive aspects of The Boston Strangler is the cinematography by Richard H. Kline, which incorporates a split-screen technique to show several events or points-of-view occurring on screen at the same time. Fleischer had been impressed with this visual approach when he first saw it in a presentation at Expo 67 in Montreal. (Other directors would soon incorporate it into their films such as Norman Jewison for The Thomas Crown Affair [1968] and John Frankenheimer for Grand Prix [1966]). Because of this complicated cinematic approach, Fleischer had to oversee five different camera crews which became a logistics nightmare. Otherwise, production proceeded smoothly except for a brief delay when Curtis accidentally broke his nose during filming and there were rumors he would be replaced.

When The Boston Strangler went into release in the fall of 1968, it became a box office hit for 20th Century Fox though the critical reviews were decidedly mixed. Renata Adler of The New York Times wrote, "The Boston Strangler represents an incredible collapse of taste, judgment, decency, prose, insight, movie technique, and is not quite the popular exploitation film that one might think. It is as though someone had gone out to do a serious piece of reporting and come up with 4,000 clippings from a sensationalist tabloid..."; She concluded by saying the movie "is to be avoided as surely as a stranger who appears at your door and identifies himself as a plumber whom you have not called." Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times was more ambivalent about the movie's qualities but clearly identified the problem: "As entertainment, it's first rate. Henry Fonda is a subtle, sensitive lawyer, George Kennedy makes a convincing cop, and Tony Curtis acts better than he has in a decade," but Ebert also noted, "The problem here is that real events are being offered as entertainment. A strangler murdered 13 women and now we are asked to take our dates to the Saturday night flick to see why."

Among the positive reviews was this report from Variety which stated, "The Boston Strangler emerges as a triumph of taste and restraint in a film era often marked by nauseating exposition and exploitation of violence. Richard Fleischer's superior direction of Edward Anhalt's excellent screen play, as interpreted by an extremely large and competent cast, distinguished this maiden effort production by former legit producer Robert Fryer." Fleischer, of course, was no stranger to true life crime dramas, having directed The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), a dramatization of the Stanford White-Evelyn Nesbit-Harry Kendall Thaw scandal of 1906, and Compulsion (1959), based on the famous Leopold-Loeb thrill-kill murder case of 1924. And in 1971, Fleischer directed 10 Rillington Place, which depicted the crimes of London serial killer John Christie (played by Richard Attenborough).

The Boston Strangler received no Oscar® nominations though several critics predicted Tony Curtis would be nominated for Best Actor. Even Curtis was surprised and disappointed when he was passed over. One has to admit it was a risky and daring change of pace role for Curtis and he loses himself completely in a disturbing portrayal of Albert DeSalvo.

The Boston Strangler concludes with the following disclaimer: "Albert DeSalvo, presently imprisoned in Walpole, Mass. has never been indicted or tried for the Boston stranglings. This film has ended, but the responsibility for the early recognition and treatment of the violent among us has yet to begin." While the movie seems to clearly finger DeSalvo as the serial killer, many crime experts believe there were more than one Boston Strangler and that some of the murders did not fit the pattern of the same killer at all. Like the true identity of Jack the Ripper, this is something we may never know and, adding a strange twist to it all, is the fact that DeSalvo was found stabbed to death in his cell at Walpole State Prison on November 25, 1973. No one was ever charged with the killing.

One final note on The Boston Strangler: According to the TV featurette, Backstory: The Boston Strangler, made for AMC, both Fleischer and Zanuck received hand made wallets from DeSalvo in prison after he saw the movie. Reportedly, Tony Curtis was disappointed when he didn't receive one but theorized, "maybe he didn't like the way I played the part."

Producer: Robert Fryer
Director: Richard Fleischer
Screenplay: Edward Anhalt (screenplay); Gerold Frank (book)
Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
Art Direction: Richard Day, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Lionel Newman
Film Editing: Marion Rothman
Cast: Tony Curtis (Albert DeSalvo), Henry Fonda (John S. Bottomly), George Kennedy (Det. Phil DiNatale), Mike Kellin (Julian Soshnick), Hurd Hatfield (Terence Huntley), Murray Hamilton (Det. Frank McAfee), Jeff Corey (John Asgeirsson), Sally Kellerman (Dianne Cluny), William Marshall (Atty. Gen. Edward W. Brooke), George Voskovec (Peter Hurkos).

by Jeff Stafford

Just Tell Me When to Cry by Richard Fleischer
American Prince: A Memoir by Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock
The Fondas: The Films and Careers of Henry, Jane & Peter Fonda by John Springer
The New Murderers' Who's Who by J.H.H. Gaute & Robin Odell (Dorset Press)
The Boston Strangler DVD featurettes
Backstory: The Boston Strangler, broadcast on AMC

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