The Boston Strangler
The Boston Strangler

The Boston Strangler Directed by Richard Fleischer

When Tony Curtis died last month at age 85, almost every obituary singled out the same four movies as his greatest screen accomplishments: Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958), Some Like It Hot (1959), and Spartacus (1960). That’s not too surprising when you scan the rest of his filmography, cluttered with romantic comedies, costume dramas, and bad TV. From his screen debut in 1949, Curtis was slotted by the industry as a hunk, not a serious actor; his signature role was the charming hustler who got the girl, and anything too far beyond that was considered a gamble. A poor Jewish kid from the Bronx, he was famously summed up by a line he’d supposedly mangled in the 1954 swashbuckler The Black Shield of Falworth: “Yonder lies dah castle of my faddah.” In fact the line was misquoted and his delivery mischaracterized, but that didn’t matter—it stuck to him like flypaper.

Given a challenging role, though, Curtis usually delivered. No movie proves this better than Richard Fleischer’s true-crime drama The Boston Strangler (1968), screening this weekend at the Music Box as part of an ongoing series of serial-killer flicks. Curtis lobbied hard for the part of Albert DeSalvo, the mentally ill handyman sentenced to life in prison for murdering 13 women in the Boston area between June 1962 and January 1964. The actor doesn’t show his face onscreen until an hour into the movie, but from that point on he owns it, stealing scene after scene from the revered Henry Fonda. His Albert DeSalvo is a human puzzle box, concerned for his wife and two children, eager to help the police, and horrified as he pushes through the fog of his own amnesia to realize he’s the infamous strangler. The climactic scene may be the pinnacle of Curtis’s acting career, though it didn’t make a dent in his public image.

Richard Zanuck, the 32-year-old production chief at 20th Century-Fox who greenlighted the film, dismissed Curtis out of hand when Fleischer suggested him for the role. The studio was looking at a wide range of actors—Warren Beatty, Beau Bridges, James Caan, Peter Falk, Peter Fonda, Martin Landau, Ryan O’Neal, Anthony Perkins, Robert Redford, George Segal—but at 42, Curtis was older than any of them and had been doing nothing but comedy for the past six years. Determined to get the part, Curtis permed his hair and used putty to flatten out his beautiful nose, and Fleischer presented photos of him to Zanuck as those of a young unknown he’d just auditioned for the role. “I really fell for it hook, line, and sinker,” Zanuck recalls in a DVD extra, citing “this kind of haunting quality—tough, yet good-looking in a rugged way, but a little off-balance.” Curtis completed the makeup with brown contact lenses to dull his well-known baby blues; he gained 20 pounds and wore fishing weights around his waist. Onscreen he looks like he’s struggling to put one foot in front of the other, unsure where they might take him.

His physicality in the role is particularly evident in the opening credits. The Boston Stranger was part of the late-60s craze for elaborate split-screen cinema that also included Point Blank (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), though Fleischer, inspired by an installation he’d seen at the Expo 67 in Montreal, was pushing the envelope with seven- and eight-panel wide-screen compositions. The first image is a tiny TV screen showing the Project Mercury astronauts as they parade through the streets of Boston; the frame brightens to show a living room as a workman, his face obscured, goes through a woman’s drawers. Fleischer breaks the frame down into smaller fractions, the credits playing over the remaining black screen, as the man sorts through her jewelry, turns over her mattress, rakes through her medicine cabinet shelves, and puzzles over her LPs before tossing them aside. A shot of him fishing through the contents of a garbage can pans to include the body of the victim, an 85-year-old woman. Curtis doesn’t come back onscreen until the midpoint of the movie, but his character is already lodged in the mind.

The filmmakers were chasing movies like Bonnie and Clyde and In Cold Blood, which took advantage of looser censorship standards to present true-crime stories in all their sordidness. For The Boston Strangler this meant a relatively frank attempt to portray the sexual underworld, in keeping with Gerold Frank’s nonfiction book about the strangler. Screenwriter Edward Anhalt created a gallery of fictional and fictionalized characters to be questioned by police, and they are troubled souls indeed. Hurd Hatfield is a rich, closeted homosexual who’s interrogated by Fonda in a red-lit gay bar (“Whenever there are unsolved sex crimes, the police crack down on us,” he complains). George Furth is funny as a molester, known for posing as an army colonel, who follows a woman home and gets caught in a police sting. But the most harrowing is William Hickey (later the Mafia don in Prizzi’s Honor) as a deranged Catholic who steals women’s handbags to masturbate with, washes himself in dirt as punishment, and sleeps on exposed bedsprings. When he realizes the police are looking for a murder suspect, he bursts into tears: “I—never—hurt—anything in my life—except—my—self.”

Into all this exposed sexuality wanders Fonda, once an adventurous young actor but long since congealed into a symbol of all-American rectitude. As John Bottomly, the real-life assistant attorney general who coordinated the Strangler Task Force, Fonda coasts through the movie, his self-satisfied performance a constant counterweight to the filmmakers’ sense of daring. On the set he ignored Curtis, which offended the other actor. “I was working my ass off to give a performance,” Curtis wrote in one of his memoirs, “and never once did he say, ‘That was a good scene’ or ‘Nice job,’ or even ‘You could have done better.’ He hardly talked to me at all. Maybe he treated me that way because he was intent on staying in character.” A symbol of the old Hollywood, Fonda seems badly out of place and time; confronted with a disturbing character like Hickey’s anguished Catholic boy, he seems to tune out completely.

The dead-end leads come to a halt when Albert DeSalvo, caught by police as he stalks his next victim, is sent to a city psychiatric ward and diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. An incredible—and completely fictional—coincidence places Bottomly in a hospital elevator as DeSalvo, being transported by an orderly, unwittingly implicates himself as the strangler. The movie ends with Bottomly’s prolonged interrogation of DeSalvo, which ultimately elicits a confession. Curtis is a man trapped in his own skin: dazed and sweating, he crawls along the white walls of the room in search of a corner to rest in. His eyes are a million miles away as Fleischer cuts in flashes of imagery that remind him of what his other self has done. Finally DeSalvo goes into a trance, acting out the strangler’s last attack in perfect detail, but the experience takes him away forever. Fleischer zooms out on the white-clad character as he disappears into the walls, Bottomly’s voice reverberating on the soundtrack: “Albert! . . . Albert! . . . Albert!”

“It was a crock of shit,” one Cambridge police veteran said of the movie, as quoted in Susan Kelly’s 1995 book The Boston Stranglers: The Public Conviction of Albert DeSalvo and the True Story of Eleven Shocking Murders. DeSalvo was never diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, and the invented scene of Bottomly meeting him in an elevator obscured the questionable circumstances of the real-life confession. DeSalvo had been committed to Bridgewater, a state hospital for the criminally insane, following a series of sexual attacks on women, and was convinced he’d spend the rest of his life behind bars. George Nassar, another inmate at Bridgewater, led DeSalvo to attorney F. Lee Bailey (later to represent Patty Hearst and O.J. Simpson), and DeSalvo asked Bailey if a confession to the strangling murders could be leveraged for a transfer to a better facility and a publishing deal that might help support his wife and children. Investigators initially rebuffed Bailey, but after the story was leaked to the newspapers a public firestorm forced Bottomly to bring DeSalvo in for questioning.

The very notion of a single perpetrator was mostly a concoction of the Boston newspapers and public paranoia; though the 13 murder victims were all women who’d been strangled, the crimes varied wildly in their circumstances and signatures. DeSalvo was known for his photographic memory, and during his two-month interrogation by Bottomly he repeated numerous crime-scene details that had been in the papers or scuttlebutt on the streets of Boston. But he also got major facts wrong, and no physical evidence or witness testimony could place him near any of the crime scenes. Serving a life sentence at Walpole, a state maximum-security prison, DeSalvo was stabbed to death by another inmate in 1973; his family has since campaigned for his exoneration, and in 2001 a team of forensic experts, comparing DNA from DeSalvo’s exhumed body and from semen found on the strangler’s last victim, announced that he was probably not the culprit.

The DeSalvo family argues that Albert confessed for the money, and he did receive a payment of $15,000 from Gerold Frank for rights to his story. After the movie became a hit, DeSalvo sued 20th Century-Fox, alleging that Bailey had tricked him into signing away the movie rights, though DeSalvo had cooperated with the production and even sent Richard Fleischer a handmade wallet. Tony Curtis didn’t get a wallet, but he did get some of the best reviews of his career. Fleischer and others who worked on the movie were stunned at Oscar time when he was overlooked for a best-actor nomination. Afterward Curtis slid into a 40-year trough of TV work and two-bit movies (his last prestige gig was a starring role in Elia Kazan’s 1976 adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel The Last Tycoon). The actor had almost nothing in common with Albert DeSalvo, but both men could have told you that once the public makes up its mind, the facts are beside the point.