Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Boston Strangler (20th Century-Fox, 1968)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Boston Strangler, made at 20th Century-Fox in 1968 and dealing with the (alleged) real-life crimes of Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis), who supposedly knocked off 13 women in Boston and surrounding communities between 1962 and 1964 (Edward Anhalt’s screenplay artfully used real-life events, starting with the honorary parade for the Mercury astronauts through the Boston streets and ending, naturally enough, with the assassination of President Kennedy and its aftermath). The opening credits state that the film is based on fact, and it’s true that virtually all its characters actually existed, but the focus is less on the Strangler and more on John S. Bottomly (Henry Fonda, whom the makeup department tried to make look mousy with a pair of bad glasses and a silly moustache), a law professor and consultant to Massachusetts District Attorney Edward W. Brooke (William Marshall, a first-rate African-American actor with a Shakespearean rep whose most famous film credit, alas, is in the lead of the American-International Blaxploitation vampire film Blacula) who’s appointed by Brooke to head a statewide task force to hunt down the mysterious Strangler and arrest him without having to deal with the jurisdictional snarls between city police departments that are hindering the local investigations. For the first half of the movie the Strangler barely appears as a character — just a shadowy presence lurking outside apartment buildings and in their hallways after he’s buzzed in by credulous tenants who believe his story that he’s been sent by their landlords to make preventive repairs (Charles said a would-be serial killer couldn’t use that M.O. today because no renter would believe a landlord was actually going to the expense of sending someone to fix something that wasn’t yet broken!) and he does away with them in a quirky way that involves doing violence to their bodies but without sexually penetrating them. The Boston Strangler was one of Tony Curtis’ periodic attempts to convince the world that he was an actor and not just a faded teen idol — oddly, he did better in that regard in the much less well known Lepke four years later, in which he played a killer but a rational gangster who murdered as part of his business model instead of a psycho, not only because it was a more believable true-life crime story but because he was on screen a lot more — and I was also interested in it because (more or less) sexually related murders were a relatively novel topic on screen then and I wanted to compare it to the way such crimes are depicted on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and other modern-day TV shows and films that aren’t under the same old-line Hollywood constraints that still obtained in 1968. (Like another 20th Century-Fox production, Valley of the Dolls, which also made a big to-do about presenting situations and characters that hadn’t been permitted on screen before, The Boston Strangler was made on the cusp between the death of the old Production Code and the institution of the rating system which replaced it.)

My first intimation that I wasn’t going to like this movie as much as I thought I would when I got out the DVD was the version of the 20th Century-Fox logo on the front of it — the color version; my heart sank when I realized a story that virtually demanded the stark black-and-white atmospherics of classic noir (though director of photography Richard Kline did his best to get some noir compositions even stuck with color, CinemaScope and the briefly fashionable multiple-screen effect — more on that later) was going to be shot in the glowing hues of Fox’s in-house process, DeLuxe. (Conrad Hall, who won an Academy Award for a Fox film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a year later, recalled continually trying to tone down the color for an old-fashioned visual effect — and being frustrated by the technicians at DeLuxe brightening it up again.) What’s more, Kline and his director, Richard Fleischer (son of the legendary cartoon producer Max Fleischer and director of a quite good later noir, the original The Narrow Margin from 1952), decided to go whole-hog with the multiple-screen effect then being used by people like John Frankenheimer in Grand Prix and Norman Jewison in The Thomas Crown Affair. Instead of showing just one scene at a time, this effect allowed directors to divide the screen into boxes, each showing a piece of action in different settings to indicate that they were occurring at the same time. The nadir of this technique was probably a film I’ve never seen but have heard about, a 1973 drama called Wicked, Wicked, about a young girl being stalked by a crazed killer — she went through her ordinary life on one side of the split screen while, through a process called “Duo-Vision” that was used throughout the film, he stalked and threatened her on the other. Why Fleischer thought he needed to use this technique when conventional cross-cutting would have done just fine to parallel the Strangler’s actions with the lives of his victims, living their ordinary existences with no idea that they’re about to be done in well ahead of schedule, is a mystery — unless he’d seen the box-office figures for The Thomas Crown Affair and figured the technique would be trendy. Fleischer also totally fails to capture the sense of a city under siege, as each new killing (and the publicity surrounding it) ramps up the public fear.

What he and Anhalt did do, surprisingly effectively, was capture the meager state of police knowledge about sex crimes in the 1960’s; Frank McAfee (gravel-voiced Murray Hamilton, the virtual personification of an old-line cop at sea investigating a sort of crime he’d never encountered or even conceived of before) practically says, “Round up all the usual suspects,” as he assumes that this rather kinky set of killings (at least initially targeting older women — though eventually the Strangler’s victim profile ranged all over the map, from teenagers to geriatrics, with little in common other than they were all female) must have been committed by someone with a known perversion: homosexuality (as it was definitely regarded in those days, especially by the sorts of people who became police officers), sadomasochism, self-flagellation (one of the kinkier suspects they drag in is a guy who gets off on women’s handbags and was thrown out of a monastery for being too far into injuring himself — he sleeps on a box spring from which all cloth has been removed, probably the closest he could get to a bed of nails), voyeurism and all sorts of things Fleischer and Anhalt were probably reveling in the prospect of mentioning on screen for the first time. One suspect comes to light when the police encounter a rather aging prostitute who recalls that he couldn’t perform sexually unless he had his arm around her neck and was strangling her — though she quickly adds that she trusted him to let go in time. One of the few genuine bits of pathos in this film comes when the cops crash a Gay bar (albeit a rather understated and decorous one) and interview Terence Huntley (played by Hurd Hatfield, who’d already had his “go” at on-screen decadence 23 years earlier as the lead in MGM’s film of The Picture of Dorian Gray), who quietly tells them he gets a lot of potential blackmailers because he’s “both rich and Gay” — the one time we hear the G-word in a movie in which we’re otherwise referred to mainly as “faggots” and occasionally as “queers.” It seems he’s living in a room he’s rented from a Lesbian couple, though at least in practice both he and one of the women in the couple he rents from are Bisexual, since he said she denounced him to the police as a potential Strangler suspect as a result of a nasty breakup following an affair in which “she played the man’s part, I the woman.” (One wonders what the mechanics of that were[1], and what both police and movie audiences made of it in the 1960’s.) Given how caught up the cops are in the stereotype that the Strangler would be a sexual pervert (and leaving aside the embarrassing question of why a Gay man would become a serial killer of women), it’s genuinely surprising when the real killer, Albert DeSalvo, turns out to be a depressingly normal fellow, with a wife, two kids and an ordinary proletarian job (a house painter, I believe) on which he struggled to make enough money to support his family.

Alas, the second half of the movie — once DeSalvo is identified as the Strangler, arrested (surprisingly easily) and hauled into John Bottomly’s presence for interrogation, the film becomes oppressively boring, just a series of two-shots and shot/reverse-shot close-ups of Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda confronting each other in a stark, featureless white room that looks like nothing one would see in a movie attempting a realistic depiction of police work. Frankly, it looked to me more like one of the torture rooms in which O’Brien interrogated Winston Smith in 1984, crossed with the interior of the Pan Am space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The second half of the film is supposed to be an intense confrontation that includes DeSalvo’s confession to the murders and the revelation that he committed them because he was psychotic and possibly a multiple personality (a disorder the real DeSalvo was never diagnosed with) — though he never comes right out and says he committed them. Eventually the famous attorney F. Lee Bailey took his case and arranged a plea bargain (DeSalvo pled guilty to previous robberies and sexual offenses and was never convicted, or even tried, for the Strangler killings) that prevented DeSalvo from being executed, but he ended up incarcerated for a life sentence in a mental institution instead of a prison. Ironically, though the final credits of this film state DeSalvo was still in custody, he actually escaped in February 1967 with two other inmates and was still at large when the movie was released — though he was later recaptured and in 1973 met his own end when a fellow inmate stabbed him (and, as with DeSalvo’s own case, no one has ever been definitively linked to DeSalvo’s killing; there was a prime suspect but his trial ended in a hung jury and the case remains open). The Boston Strangler is a surprisingly dull movie of a story that should have been a nail-biting thriller and a moral tale about psychopathology, guilt, innocence and the mental state that leads an otherwise ordinary, unassuming person to crime.

Interestingly, though in 2013 DeSalvo’s corpse was exhumed and DNA testing definitively linked him to the rape and murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan towards the end of the series of “Boston Strangler” killings, but there’s still a revisionist school of thought about the case that DeSalvo didn’t commit all the murders and there may have been several “Boston Stranglers” because of the wide variety of victim profiles and modi operandi. The Boston Strangler is merely a rather dull pair of movies arbitrarily linked — the first one with the elements of a good neo-noir thriller that could have been considerably better if it had been shot in rich, contrasty, chiaroscuro black-and-white and if Fleischer and cinematographer Kline had lost all the multiple-screen box effects (and if Fleischer had brought to it the same sense of pace he’d had 16 years earlier in The Narrow Margin) and the second is a seemingly endless interrogation scene that leads precisely nowhere and, to the extent it’s watchable, it’s only for Henry Fonda’s sincerity shining through despite all the efforts of the makeup and costuming department to turn him into a nerd. It’s also worth watching, kind of, for the reliable George Kennedy as one of the lead detectives on the case and a couple of scenes featuring actors who would become much bigger names later on — Sally Kellerman as a Strangler victim whom he ties up in a classic bondage pose (an message board criticizes Fleischer for making it look like she enjoyed being raped, but perhaps the gimmick was supposed to be that she was an experienced S/M practitioner who thought she was doing a consensual scene and was trapped with a psycho instead) and who actually survives her ordeal and gives the police valuable information, and James Brolin as a cop who’s embarrassed when Bottomly calls in a psychic, Peter Hurkos (George Voskovec) to work on the case who turns out to be wrong about the Strangler’s identity but right when he guesses Brolin was late to a meeting of the Strangler task force because he stopped at his girlfriend’s home and had a sexual quickie with her. “Everybody’s banging everybody. It’s a horny world,” says Captain Willis — an odd line indeed for a movie about a sexually motivated killer!

[1] — Did she use a strap-on? And if so, where did she get it in the 1960’s in legendarily censorious Boston?