What better time to release a film based on one of the most notorious murderers than in a time where true crime is all the rage? With true crime podcasts like Serial and Undisclosed, as well as the more off color My Favorite Murder and Last Podcast on the Left and shows like Netflix’s Making a Murderer, people are more interested in the stories of criminals and/or our justice system than seemingly ever before. One of the more popular new podcasts is Earwolf’s Stranglers, which dives into the case of Albert Desalvo and The Boston Strangler. This week is week four of the enlightening and enthralling podcast, so as it begins to get into the real meat of the case, it goes to reason that it is the perfect time to dive into Twilight Time’s recently released Blu-ray of Richard Fleischer’s 1968 neo-noir murder mystery, simple titled The Boston Strangler.
Director Richard Fleischer may best known to genre film fans as the director who brought us Soylent Green (just an FYI, it’s people), while his list of directorial credits is quite lengthy and impressive. A few of his other widely known and celebrated works are Che!, Tora! Tora! Tora, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage and Dr. Doolittle. He was also the man behind the much derided Mandingo! and was never unwilling to push the envelope when he felt it was needed, both stylistically and politically. The Boston Strangler lies right in the middle of his film career, but is certainly one of the landmark films of his career.
The film is based on Gerold Frank’s 1968 book of the same name. The story fits a bit too neatly into the box the film lays out for it, but that is to be expected as this is a Hollywood depiction of the Strangler murders, as opposed to a non-fiction account. The actual case is far more complex than the film depicts and the film apparently doesn’t do a great job a good job adhering to its source material (according to Roger Ebert, at least). To be fair, a good deal of the twists and turns that are not covered in the film were discovered years after the film was released. Without reading the book, it’s difficult to see what critical information was left out or changed when adapted; yet, the narrative of the film works very well for the film itself.
This all said, it’s not the story that is most striking about the film, but instead the way in which the story is told. The film is shot in an almost documentary style for much of the film, at times looking a lot like a news story and others a more stylized, but still straight forward approach. Moreover, the transfer is so crisp on the Blu-ray that it allows the viewer to truly appreciate this great use of of the camera and the unique editing. The style fluidly transitions into something very Giallo-esque during the scenes where Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler himself (played by Tony Curtis), is committing his murders. Despite the tone of the film never veering much into horror, there is a bit of gore and the visuals of these scenes are engaging.
The cast is strong with Henry Fonda, as Investigator John S. Bottomly (the man who leads the investigation and eventually obtains a confession), and George Kennedy, as Detective Phil DiNatale, in the most prominent roles alongside Curtis. The rest of the cast does a great job, top to bottom, as well. There is something about the film that feels very proper, perhaps a bit too proper. Thus, while the actors all feel like they are delivering their performance to perfection, there feels like a lack of words on the page. As they say, a good actor can’t save a bad script.
Calling this a poorly written would be an overstatement. It’s not a bad script, but it does lack certain depth and realism. The value in this film is mostly in the construction of the film and the camera work. Again, the transfer on this Twilight Time Blu-ray truly brings out the best in the film’s look. With a stronger script that captures more of the nuances of the actual crimes and investigation, this film could be on of the all time greats. As it stands, it’s still a very worthwhile watch.
In short, it’s a film that would fit in well on your murder mystery shelf. It’s a film worth watching on a nice big TV, so you can oggle the craftsmanship with which the film was put together and displayed. It’s a film worth revisiting from time to time as a companion piece to one of your favorite “based on a true story” crime films. Packed with extras and some great artwork, The Boston Strangler is another strong release from Twilight Time, who time and time again prove that they really love sharing their love of film.