The Boston Strangler

Mental illness awareness month.
Richard Fleischer
Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, George Kennedy, Leora Dana
The Setup: 
Serial killer is confounding the Boston police department.

A friend recommended this for the fact that it contains early views of gay bars and a bit of a foray into the gay world of the Sixties, sort of like The Detective. So I was on it. We soon find out that this is a respectable drama with an Important Message, and features an all-star cast including Henry Fonda, Tony Curtis, Murray Hamilton and George Kennedy. We are also told right up front that it is a true story. So here we go!

We open with the killer rifling through the possessions of a woman who lies dead on the floor. Already we see what will continue for quite a while, which is the screen broken up into little frames, sometimes a straight split-screen, sometimes broken into as many as eight little frames. Before you know it another woman has been killed--he usually strikes little old ladies that stay home and bake or do ironing--and ransacks the apartment, but doesn't steal anything. He also sexually abuses the women, which we just hear about, for example that one was raped with a wine bottle, and in another we simply see a broom handle emerging from between the victim's legs. The police are confounded, because even though the case is becoming a sensation that holds the area in the grip of fear, it seems that all of the victims willingly let the killer in.

Soon Henry Fonda as John Bottomly is put in charge of the case. My friend was amused that we see Fonda enter a gay bar, walk up to some guys and say "I'm John Bottomly." The gay bar in question is one of those quite unfamiliar to us all, with red velvet wallpaper and straight-laced although sullen gays in suits. Here we first see them dancing to the groovy Sixties swing music, which was kind of fun. We have a few leads that don't pan out, like the gay fellow accused of the murders by a woman whose attentions he rejected, and another with a suspect who enjoys intercourse with women's handbags. This is one of those movies in which the police routinely bring in "all the perverts" as suspects. But the murders continue, and the first hour is whiled away with various investigations and blind alleys.

About an hour in we meet Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo. He is watching the Kennedy funeral on TV with his wife and two kids, then goes out for a bit, puts on a knit cap, poses as a plumber to gain access to a woman's apartment, then kills her. We soon see him attack another woman, who survives. He is caught on a third attempt, after a long chase, and sent to a mental hospital for examination. He is soon revealed to be plumb bonkers, alternating with being a sensitive nice fellow who just wants to get back to his family. Could it be a clear-cut case of multiple personality?

You betcha. But this concept was completely new at the time, as was the idea of "not guilty by reason of insanity," and the rest of the movie will become a demonstration of how we should have sympathy for the mentally Ill, even if they go on violent murder sprees. The last 30 minutes are made up of Fonda interviewing Curtis, slowly bringing him around to the realization that at certain times he blacks out and goes off to kill women. In here we have lots of shots of Curtis doubled in mirrors to reflect his split personality. Finally he faces the fact that he, unbeknownst to himself, is a killer. They won't prosecute, but he'll remain locked up forever. The film ends with an on-screen plea for tolerance and understanding of the mentally Ill, even though they may have killed your Grandma and raped her with a wine bottle. They didn't mean it!

It was amusing enough, and clearly hails from the time, when psychology was just beginning to trickle down into the popular consciousness, putting it in the company of films like Marnie or The Bad Seed. Unfortunately, in retrospect, that's about all it is: a relic. It is low on thrills (although the sense of an entire city in panic is well done and it's never boring), and rather than build up to a climax, it builds to a Very Important Message, which can make one feel a bit bamboozled and drawn in under false pretenses. But it is what it is, it reflects the time, and it's fairly unlikely that too many people will want to sit through it at this point. Don't worry--there's no real reason to.

Should you watch it: 

Not really, unless you want to see the glimpses of Sixties gay life, but even for that, you're better off watching The Detective.