15 December 2019

The Boston Strangler

I remember seeing this movie as a kid, maybe when I was 10 or 12 years old, and thinking it was pretty cool.  Then a couple days ago I see it's showing on FXM.  I figured I would watch it and laugh at how hokey and dated it would now seem.  After all, this thing was made 51 years ago.  We're used to shit like Se7en, now.  Well, this almost docudrama-style telling of the Boston Strangler case (13 strangled women, most of them old bags, but a couple young hotties thrown in the mix), has held up remarkably well.  In fact, I would say it seems far less dopey than The Silence of the Lambs, a movie made 23 years later, but which with its *fava beans and a nice chianti* killer now seems pretty campy.

The biggest drawback to The Boston Strangler is the film's first half features numerous split screen shots, of which only a few really work (the ones showing victims and the oblivious people about to discover them).  The split screen shit must have seemed quite film school avant-garde back in the day, but viewed in 2019 it's mainly distracting.  

Although I say the movie has a docudrama feel to it, it must be noted the story presents a highly fictionalized version of the strangler, Albert DeSalvo.  He's portrayed as suffering from a split personality and being unaware of his crimes until the film's *dramatic* ending, so don't watch this thing expecting some Wikipedia DeSalvo, watch it instead as a luridly gripping (put ID Network in a time machine set to 1968) serial killer movie inspired by the Strangler case.

I guarantee you will be surprised by how much homosexuality, sex perversion and fetish is shown and discussed in this 51 year old movie.  The great actor William Hickey plays with pathetic perfection one of the sad perverts the police mistakenly suspect as the Strangler—you'll feel so sorry for him, you'll want to go to Poshmark and get him a Louis Vuitton bag (watch the movie and you'll understand the reference).  

The police call homosexuals *faggots,* but in one scene set in a gay bar, Henry Fonda, who (blandly, as usual) plays the guy in charge of the Strangler task force, acknowledges the humanity of a fag, I mean, gay character (that had to be quite forward thinking back in 1968, no?).

What really holds this film together, and keeps it watchable to this day, is the remarkable performance by Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo.  Curtis isn't even on screen for the first half of the movie, which shows the crime scenes and follows law enforcement's futile attempts to identify the Strangler.  Just as the novelty of the pervert and fetishist suspects is starting to wear off, and you begin to tire of the police procedural, Curtis appears, looking sad and strangely alone as he sits in a chair watching JFK's funeral on television, while his wife and kids make a racket in the kitchen.

The last hour of the movie is devoted to the slow unraveling of Curtis' DeSalvo, and it's a performance that few actors could pull off, for it demands one of the most difficult-to-navigate scenes in movie history, which we will detail next.  But what's amazing is that it's Tony Curtis!  People today probably don't even know who he is, but Curtis was a *movie star!*  The guy was mainly known as a pretty boy, a lightweight who mostly did comedies and romances.  But this film was shot when Curtis was pretty much a has-been, headed for TV roles.  Still, it must have been quite a shock for 1968 audiences to see the former gOOfball from Some Like It Hot rip open a woman's dress, tie her to a bed and then punch the shit out of her.  Try imagining Tom Hanks playing the BTK killer instead of Mr. Rogers.

Anyway, about that difficult-to-navigate scene: The Boston Strangler ends with a loooonnng near-monologue in which Curtis-as-DeSalvo discovers his murderer's personality, and it requires Curtis to pantomime one of his murders.  I can imagine 99 out of 100 actors trying this, and failing. . .failing so badly as to provoke disbelieving laughter from the audience.  It's amazing that the former *matinee idol* Curtis pulls this scene off, but he does.  In fact, he owns it, it's all there, a killer's soul lit up by sick desire, the euphoria of the prey in his grip, the rage to kill and the orgasmic little death of the kill, the whimpering withdrawal and then the crash to self-disgust and denial.  It's a forgotten great performance from a forgotten movie that was ahead of its time.  

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