Between June 14, 1962 and January 4, 1964, 13 women between the ages of 19 and 85 were murdered in the Boston area. It was felt that they had all been killed by the same man, a monster known as The Boston Strangler. Though the police investigated many suspects, they never made an arrest. (One should remember that this was before the time of DNA testing or criminal profiling. The term “serial killer” had not even been coined. Today, sad to say, we take the existence of serial killers for granted. In the 60s, it was still an exotic concept.)
In October of 1964, a man named Albert DeSalvo was arrested and charged with being “the Green Man,” a serial rapist who pretended to be a maintenance man in order to gain access to single women’s apartments. After he was charged with rape, detectives were surprised when DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler. When confessing to the murders, DeSalvo got a few minor details wrong but he also consistently included other details that the police hadn’t released to the general public. Even when put under hypnosis, DeSalvo’s recalled those previously unreleased details. Because DeSalvo was already going to get a life sentence on the rape charges and because there wasn’t any physical evidence that, in those pre-DNA, could have conclusively linked DeSalvo to the crimes, he was never actually charged with any of the murders. Still, with his confessions, the cases were considered to be closed.
In 1966, before DeSalvo was even sentenced for the Green Man rapes, Gerold Frank wrote The Boston Strangler, a book about the murders, the investigations, and DeSalvo’s confessions. It was one of the first true crime books and, in 1968, it was adapted into one of the first true crime films.
Directed by Richard Fleischer (whose filmography somehow includes not only this film but also Dr. Dolittle, Fantastic Voyage, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Conan The Destroyer, and Red Sonja), The Boston Strangler is really two films in one. The first half deals with the crimes and the police (represented by Henry Fonda, George Kennedy, Murray Hamilton, and James Brolin) investigation. This half of the film is pulpy and crudely effective, full of scenes of the cops rounding up every sex offender who they can find. There’s a scene where Henry Fonda talks to a prominent man in a gay bar that’s handled with about as much sensitivity as you could expect from a 1960s studio film. (On the one hand, the man is portrayed with respect and dignity and he’s even allowed to call out the patron saint of 1960s mainstream liberal piety, Henry Fonda, for being close-minded. On the other hand, everyone else in the bar is a stereotype and we’re meant to laugh at the idea that anyone could think that Henry Fonda could be gay.) Director Richard Fleischer makes good use of split screens, creating an effective atmosphere of paranoia. The scene where a woman tries to keep an obscene caller on the phone long enough for the police to trace his location made my skin crawl and served as a reminder that perverts predate social media. Another scene where a flamboyant psychic tries to help the police goes on for a bit too long but, at the same time, you’re happy for a little relief from crime scenes and terrified, elderly women discovering that their neighbors have been murdered.
The second half of the film features Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo. Curtis is effective as DeSalvo, playing him as being a self-loathing brute who is incapable of controlling his impulses. (Before committing one of his crimes, DeSalvo watches the funeral of John Kennedy, his face wracked with pain. Is the film suggesting that DeSalvo murdered to deal with the stress of life in America or is it suggesting that the hate that killed Kennedy was a symptom of the same sickness that drove DeSalvo? Or is the film just tossing in a then-recent event to get an easy emotional reaction from the audience?) As one might expect from a mainstream film made in 1968, The Boston Strangler takes something of a wishy washy approach to the question of whether DeSalvo’s crimes were due to sickness or evil. Yes, the film says, DeSalvo was bad but it’s still society’s fault for not realizing that he was bad. It’s the type of approach designed to keep both the law-and-order types and the criminal justice reformers happy but it ultimately feels a bit like a cop out. Still, the shots of DeSalvo isolated in his padding cell have an undeniable power and Curtis is both pathetic and frightening in the role. In its more effective moments, the second half of the film works as a profile of a man imprisoned both physically and mentally.
Watching the film today, it’s hard not to consider how different The Boston Strangler is from the serial killer films that would follow it. DeSalvo is not portrayed as being some sort of charming or interesting Hannibal Lecter or Dexter-type of killer. Instead, he’s a loser, a barely literate idiot who struggled to articulate even the simplest of thoughts. The cops aren’t rule-breakers or renegades. Instead, they’re doing their jobs the best that they can. Though the film ends with a title card saying that it’s important for society to make more of an effort to spot people like DeSalvo before they kill, The Boston Strangler has a surprising amount of faith in both the police and the law and it assumes that you feel the same way. It’s a film that takes it for granted the audience respects and trusts authority. It’s portrayal of the police is quite a contrast to the rebel cops who dominate pop culture today.
After the film came out, DeSalvo recanted his confessions and said that he had never killed anyone. He was subsequently murdered in prison in 1971, not due to his crimes but instead because he was independently selling drugs for prices cheaper than what had been agreed upon by the prison’s syndicate. After his death, many books were written proclaiming that DeSalvo was innocent and that the real Boston Strangler was still on the streets. Others theorized that the actual Strangler was DeSalvo’s cellmate and DeSalvo, knowing he was going to prison for life regardless, confessed in return for money being sent to his family. That said, in 2013, DNA evidence did appear to conclusively link DeSalvo to the murder of 19 year-old Mary Sullivan. Of course, that doesn’t mean that DeSalvo necessarily committed the other 12 murders. In fact, from what we’ve since learned about the pathology of serial killers, it would actually make more sense for the murders to have been committed by multiple killers as opposed to just one man.
Regardless of whether DeSalvo was guilty or not, The Boston Strangler is an uneven but ultimately effective journey into the heart of darkness.