The Boston Strangler

The Boston Strangler (USA, 1968, 116 mins)

Source: ScreenSound Australia Prod Co: 20th Century-Fox Prod: Richard Fryer Director: Richard Fleischer Scr: Edward Anhalt Ph: Richard Kline Art Dir: Jack Martin Smith, Richard Day Ed: Marion Rothman “Production Film Treatment”: Fred Harpman Mus: Lionel Newman

Cast: Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, George Kennedy, Murray Hamilton, Sally Kellerman, Hurd Hatfield, James Brolin.

Most Hollywood careers of note tend to be of interest because they problematise la politique des auteurs. The problem of Richard Fleischer (son of Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer) is that he brought something, if not quite like an auteurist élan then much like a moral coherence, to at least two apparently estranged genres: the fantastic or at least mythic spectacle actioner (The Vikings [1958], Fantastic Voyage [1966], Soylent Green [1973], Conan the Destroyer [1984]); and the realist crime and punishment procedural. He also contributed to other sub-genres such as the regional Gothic (Mandingo [1975]) and the Wambaughian LA cops cycle (The New Centurions [1972]). And, of course, his filmography includes the prerequisite early noir cult classic, something that the career of any post-war Hollywood great should have (The Narrow Margin [1952]).

Although he is well down Andrew Sarris’ pantheon, Fleischer was the sort of director who kept making curious and underrated films, who keeps getting interviewed in fanzines such as Starburst – without anyone bothering to suggest that he had an underrated career. Yet to me his life in Hollywood demonstrates how the auteur was typically a canny arbitrager of his craft within the studio system, trading on the previous job of work to get the Art made. Let’s note curious parallels between his career and that of a slightly younger peer, Stanley Kubrick (acknowledging the fact that Kubrick was more compulsive and a far quicker learner). This is not just because they are both key figures in the history of the science-fiction feature, but because in both cases an apprenticeship in documentary leads to ‘B’-ish thriller efficiencies, which lead to the ‘A’ action spectacles on whose box office both directors traded – in Fleischer’s case from the time of Crack in the Mirror (1960) onwards – their way into projects of choice. My feeling about this is a little cranky, I know. However, while by the mid-’70s (after which, unfortunately, Fleischer’s less self-managed career falls back on such genre patch jobs as Amityville 3-D [1983]) Fleischer had proved himself to be a very coherent voice on thematically recurrent subjects of social aberration and violence, it still wasn’t totally clear what Kubrick really wanted to say.

The centrality of Fleischer’s concern with the social space in which Murder’s crime and punishment must be considered was, of course, confirmed a few years after The Boston Strangler with his study of both Christie’s murder spree and Timothy Evans’ state-sanctioned murder in 10 Rillington Place (1970). The Boston Strangler was nevertheless at least the third occasion on which Fleischer had argued that psychotic killing was a complex social artefact (and thus, indirectly, also argued against the capital punishments which deny a social pathology or culpability behind the crime). An early study of murderer Henry Thaw, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), had been followed by his Leopold and Loeb ‘transcription’, Compulsion (1959). A similar process of social inquiry was probably proposed in Fleischer’s key unrealised pet project of the early ’60s, a study of the trial of Sanco and Vanzetti. Certainly, Orson Welles’ condensation of Clarence Darrow’s famous defence of the teenage killers in Compulsion seems, retrospectively, to speak with the same voice of liberal paternal guilt that Henry Fonda brings to The Boston Strangler.

It is odd then that Fleischer, ever the craftsman of special effects, has preferred to discuss The Boston Strangler as an experiment rather than a study; the realisation of an old interest in what is known as a multi-panel matte technique (to distinguish it from multi-screen screening formats then popular in exhibition installations or used in Warhol’s then unlikely sleeper hit The Chelsea Girls [1967]). In his pre-Hollywood career as a New York showman, Fleischer had seen Czech experimental films utilising these matte techniques; and he spoke of having subsequently spent many years casting around for content where the form would be appropriate. (1) At this time, the success of The Chelsea Girls and the generally expanded visionary mood of the counter-culture was already spawning a rash of more hip and less thoughtfully conceptual uses of this technique, in things like Grand Prix (1966), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Woodstock (1970). But in most of these titles the technique is visual candy. I would argue that The Boston Strangler alone harnessed it (in conjunction with an assured use of the zoom and the focus pull) as an alternative to, and always an expansion of, classical montage. Certainly, it is far more grimly effective than The Thomas Crown Affair in enhancing and realising what the technique – in its multi-dimensionality and its creation of a social ensemble effect – does best: to lengthen out the fuse of the thriller’s ‘slow burn’.

And one gets the impression – perhaps unfairly – that in most of these other films the panel technique was a post-production plug in; but Fleischer and The Boston Strangler‘s under-credited designer, Fred Harpman, spent seven months in pre-production blocking out a system of images which would effectively connote the mixture of moral and mortal panic. This pre-planning allowed DOP Kline to use a series of pre-cut eye-piece mattes, giving the operator the frame shape in which he was to light and shoot and allowing for the efficient set-up and delivery of the many pick-ups the film required (sometimes as many as 50 a day and never more than three feet in length). But it also gives the arrangement of ‘shots’ an almost unique aesthetic commonsense and functionality. To a lesser extent, Fleischer often specifically utilises the technique’s quality of simultaneity in scenes that debate the social causation of sexual violence: in one scene when out driving on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, De Salvo sees an oddly generic sex-shop window display – a naked woman, a sign reading “La Mode” – and, in a flutter of eyelids, is literally ‘turned on’ to gruesome sexual violence. I think, however, that where he is less a Moralist in the perilous discursive realm of media effects and more observational of art’s own place in the phenomena of mass panic, Fleischer is more effective. For example, in the scene where the bars of a park railing morph into a series of panels representing the mass fear of Boston’s female inhabitants. Or earlier, when the small top left-hand panel of a darkened room – a natura morta of limp leg with torn underwear at its ankle – works as a grim ‘indicator’ of crime done waiting patiently to be matched (by an almost identical right-hand frame of the same room as the door opens) to crime revealed (showing two traumatised house-mates). Later, Fleischer will also use the technique to constantly contextualise and deflate the Gothic determinism out of De Salvo’s pathology. This tone of dramatic irony and social inquiry is apparent in the film’s close examination of how his victims were determined not by the psychoanalytic aesthetics of the ‘M.O.’ (something that has since become so beloved by the serial killer genre) but instead by a random collage of occurrences amongst Boston’s streets and apartment block hallways. Often De Salvo’s crimes were determined by nothing more than the happenstance of who was at home when he rang the doorbell. Frequently, it could be determined (in the film’s fascinatingly recurring motif of conurbation) by the troubles he had getting a parking spot out front.

Suspecting why some of you are here to watch The Boston Strangler, I want to reinforce Fleischer’s point. Despite the status of these historic events and this, its representation, in some minds, neither the events nor its representation should be allowed to take a place in popular culture as avatars of the current Natural Born Killer cycle. The Boston Strangler may have been released on the same day in 1968 as Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) but it wants no part of the future cultural history that this coincidence seems to hint at. (2) In part, its diptych and factually cryptic structure reflects both the less-than-Gothic realities behind the legend and its creator’s unease with what is legendary in his subject (much as the recent Chopper [2000] so successfully resolves its own moral unease with its subject). But there is also the central plot and historic problem of guilt and conviction in these matters; in fact, De Salvo’s guilt remains to this day circumstantial. The later crimes that the almost robotic, off-cast, Tony Curtis is actually shown to commit in the second of the film’s two acts – a few break and enters, two sexual assaults, no murders – are amongst the few which, at the time of the film’s making, he had, with any certainty, been linked to. The possibility (still unnerving to this day) that De Salvo was just part of an episode of mass psychotic behaviour, a concatenation of one-off or at most two-off killings is, I think, in the back of the film’s narrative ‘mind’ as it surveys Boston’s population of small-time sex maniacs, voyeurs and perverts. Those most likely are least likely – especially the sex crime’s so-frequent patsy in late ’60s Hollywood cinema, the gay-bar habituate (see The Detective [1968], etc.) The rest of us ‘guys’ – an immaturely handsome James Brolin (as the young detective whose white lie is caught out by the psychic Peter), the forensically-distanced Fonda, the good Family, and helpful handy-man De Salvo himself (played by former sensuous leading man Curtis) – well, we’re probably all in on it. The Boston Strangler is Fleischer’s document of ‘Nurtural’ Born Killing.

Whilst The Boston Strangler did not initiate an era of misogynistic screen savagery (I think this can be dated at least as far back as the late ’50s thrillers of Siegel and Aldrich) it may well indicate the end of one. For what seems the umpteenth time in the film, a party of hat and coat detectives shuffle around the scene of the crime – shot literally over the head of another close-upped, lower-framed, soft-focused female victim, a Masters’ student writing a thesis on gay male subculture. Of course, the Eisenhowerish, boot-polished detectives have drawn their deductions; inferences which expose the social contradictions from which the film derives so much of its realism and also its moral occult. But there is a kind of button-up poetry in these lines, which end the film’s first act. If the Hollywood Production Code can ever be thought of as having spoken famous last words, it might well be these:

1st Detective: “Look at that stabbing pattern around the breast. we know that it’s consistent with Queers.”

2nd Detective: “.We’ve checked on the girl. She had three boy friends. Two of them were Queers. We think she was banging the other one.”

Senior Detective: “. Of course. Everyone’s banging everyone else. It’s a Horny World.”


  1. This and other technical details come from Richard Fleischer et al, “Multiple-Image Technique for The Boston Strangler,” American Cinematographer vol. 50, no. 2, February 1969, pp. 202-205, 228, 238, 245.
  2. Variety, 16 October 1968, p. 6.

About The Author

Quentin Turnour is Programmer with Australia's National Film and Sound Archive.

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