‘The Boston Strangler’ or — “Realism” My Perfectly Formed Ass?!

Richard Fleischer’s ‘The Boston Strangler’ (1968) opens by declaring that the events we are about to witness actually happened and does so with the attitude and stance of a purveyor of truth and realism: the camera has the roving eye of a probing investigator; the soundtrack is a collage of captured street chatter and news reports; everything is striving for actuality.

So why was I sitting there looking at my TV and crying out “What a load of bollocks! As far as Fleischer films go this is more unbelievable than having a miniature Raquel Welsh swimming about inside my colon!” It’s not that ‘The Boston Strangler’ isn’t a good film, in fact it’s highly entertaining and incredibly well made, but it’s also about as realistic as a yodelling unicorn.

A strangler in Boston has been strangling women in Boston so everyone decides to call him ‘the Boston Strangler’. Unfortunately trapping him is like looking for a needle in a haystack so the investigating team, lead by Henry Fonda, start dragging in every sex offender, peeping tom, flasher, pervert and sex maniac they can find. Yet are these crimes driven by corrupted lust or are they a consequence some other psychological dysfunction?

What’s great about ‘The Boston Strangler’ is just how entertaining it is, despite the heavy subject matter. Fleischer keeps everything moving along nicely, frequently fragmenting the screen to provide various view-points (although also, possibly, to highlight the impact of the TV set and media exposure on society and the killer’s mind) and the bristling sound design — frantic vox-pops, the ripping of fabric, the THUD of knife plunging into wood — all result in an engaging, unsettling and captivating experience.

And that’s just as well because halfway through the movie the entire film seems to say “Fuck it!” and throws any pretence towards realism out the window and we suddenly find ourselves in a world of psychics, mediums, hypnotists, glib psychological explanations and all other manner of batshit quackery.

Okay, in the film’s defence this is all deliberately done to illustrate how desperate the police were and the straws they were willing to clutch onto due to lack a of clues. Plus the film also tips us off, and without directly saying so, that it knows that mediumship is all a load of bollocks because notice that the psychic’s description of events is exactly verbatim as those Murray Hamilton justread out from his pocket notebook only a minute earlier, the implication being this charlatan had simply managed to steal a surreptitious peak at it without Hamilton realising. The film, smartly, lets us figure that out for ourselves.

My only other small problem is when Curtis, for it is he who is the strangler, finally appears the movie slightly lost its grip on my attention. It’s not that it goes downhill but more that everything that came before it was, for me, way more enjoyable.

For example — my favourite scene in the film, and possibly the most important in the entire movie, is when the police set a honey-trap for Lyonel Brumley (George Furth), a pickle salesman with a sex addiction. It’s a scene that simultaneously fulfils several functions — firstly, it’s a refreshing moment of comedy amidst all the killings and, secondly, it’s the film explicitly reassuring the audience — “Look, we know we’ve been telling you lot for the last hour that you’re all a bunch of perverts sitting out there in the audience but we’re not demonising sex here. It’s okay to be horny so you can relax. We’re after a killer, not a pervert of which the majority of you out there probably all are.” Hell, Murray Hamilton is even jealous of Brumley’s rampant virility!

So I was way more interested when the police where dealing with all these colourful deviants who make up our society than I was with the actual psychopathic killer, and one who is given a fairly shallow psychological explanation (although I did love the excellent camera move that brilliantly, and unexpectedly, reveals that Curtis isn’t, in fact, an isolated loner).

Still, ‘The Boston Strangler’ is a great movie and one made with a load of visual, sonic and dramatic invention. It straddles cinema history nicely in that it follows earlier procedurals such as ‘The Naked City’ (1948) and prefigures those to come, such as ‘Manhunter’ (1986). It’s a great film but one I found slightly less interesting when dealing with the mind of a serial killer and way more exciting when tackling good, old fashioned, everyday perversion. Or maybe that’s just me.



Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.