Boston Strangler, The (1968): Richard Fleischer’s Crime Thriller, Starring Tony Curtis

Richard Fleischer directed The Boston Strangler, a crime noir thriller, very loosely based on the true story of the Boston Strangler and the book by Gerold Frank.

The Boston Strangler
The Boston Strangler.JPG

Theatrical release poster


Grade: B (*** out of *****)

In one of his richest roles, Tony Curtis is cast against type as Albert DeSalvo, the strangler, and Henry Fonda as John S. Bottomly, the detective who achieved fame for getting DeSalvo’s confession.

The cast also featured George Kennedy, Murray Hamilton and Sally Kellerman, as the only surviving victim.

Rights to Frank’s book were bought for $250,000, and British playwright Terence Rattigan was hired for the script, but the producer was unhappy with his draft and brought in vet scribe Edward Anhalt.

After three murders of elderly women, the victims being strangled and penetrated with sharp objects, the Boston police hold that it’s the doing of a serial killer.

Massachusetts Attorney General Edward W. Brooke (William Marshall) appoints the initially reluctant John S. Bottomly (Fonda) as the head of a “Strangler Bureau,” tasked with coordinating the multi-state investigation.

As the body count grows, Bottomly calls in a psychic, Peter Hurkos (George Voskovec), who pinpoints Eugene T. O’Rourke (William Hickey), a man who fits the profile.  Eugene is taken in for psychiatric observation, but nothing implicates him. Another murder is committed while O’Rourke is under observation, which clears his name.

The main murder occurs during the 1963 telecast of the funeral of John F. Kennedy. While his family (and entire nation) is watching TV, DeSalvo (Curtis) leaves his wife and children, presumably for work.

He gains entry into the apartment of Dianne Cluny (Sally Kellerman), while she is ironing, by posing as a plumber. He then proceeds to brutally attack and tie her to the bed, while she’s screaming and fighting back.

In one of the film’s more powerful moments, DeSalvo is taken aback by the sight of himself in the mirror as he tries to subdue Dianne; he flees her place after she bites his hand.

He tries to enter anther apartment, but the woman’s husband is at home, and he pursues him on the street. During the chase, DeSalvo is apprehended by a passing police patrol. Incompetent to stand trial, he is committed to a hospital for psychiatric observation.

By chance, Bottomly and Detective Phil DiNatale (George Kennedy) pass by DeSalvo in an elevator, after visiting Dianne. Observing the wound on DeSalvo’s hand, they hold him suspect for the Boston Strangler.

Interrogation is ineffective as the physician thinks that DeSalvo suffers from a split personality, inflicted with identities that are unaware of each other. His “normal” personality fabricates memories in place of the memories of murder committed by the “strangler’s” personality.

After several sessions, Bottomly manages to reveal DeSalvo’s hidden personality, and the criminal slips into catatonic state.

The film’s first hour is a procedural, intercut with depiction of some of the murders.  The movie changes tempo in the second half, when it becomes a more intimate psycho-drama, centering on the interrogation and the relationship that evolves between Bottomly and DeSalvo.

The heavy reliance on the split-screen technique is largely ineffective. At times the screen is divided into four or more windows, which proves distracting.

The technique only works in two or three segments, in which the screen is split into two, depicting DeSalvo as he tries to enter into the women’s apartments and views of the potential victims and their doings at that time.

The last reel, heavy on Hollywood psychobabble, is rather dull (and pretentious) in depicting Bottom’s methods to penetrate into DeSalvo’s tortured mind.

That said, the film affords Curtis a chance to stretch dramatically and show skills and facets of his screen persona, never before seen in his popular comedies (Some Like It Hot) and more serious films (The Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones).

Sporadically entertaining, The Boston Strangler walks a fine line between an exploitational thriller (there are some prurient shots of female nudity) and a more significant melodrama bout a deeply troubled criminal.

Critics at the time of initial release complained about the deviation of the scenario from the known fact of the real Boston strangler, a strategy taken for the sake of cheap and mass appeal.

Moderately successful at the box-office, back in 1968, over the years, the movie has developed a wider following through repeat showings of the picture by TCM and other cable channels.

Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo
Henry Fonda as John S. Bottomly
George Kennedy as Det. Phil DiNatale
Mike Kellin as Julian Soshnick
Hurd Hatfield as Terence Huntley
Murray Hamilton as Sgt. Frank McAfee
Jeff Corey as John Asgeirsson
Sally Kellerman as Dianne Cluny
William Marshall as Atty. Gen. Edward W. Brooke
George Voskovec as Peter Hurkos
George Furth as Lyonel Brumley
Leora Dana as Mary Bottomly
Austin Willis as Dr. Nagy
Carolyn Conwell as Irmgard DeSalvo
Jeanne Cooper as Cloe
Richard X. Slattery as Det. Cap. Ed Willis
William Hickey as Eugene T. O’Rourke
James Brolin as Det. Sgt. Phil Lisi
Alex Dreier as News Commentator
John Cameron Swayze as T.V. Narrator
Elizabeth Baur as Harriet Fordin
Carole Shelley as Dana Banks
Tim Herbert as Cedric
Tom Aldredge as Harold Lacey


Directed by Richard Fleischer
Screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on “The Boston Strangler”
by Gerold Frank
Produced by James Cresson, Robert Fryer
Cinematography Richard H. Kline
Edited by Marion Rothman
Music by Lionel Newman

Production and distribution company: 20th Century Fox

Release date: October 16, 1968

Running time: 116 minutes
Budget $4.1 million
Box office $17,811,000


FXM Retro showed the movie March 26, 2020, and TCM on January 13, 2022.