Richard Fleischer is one of the more underrated old-school Hollywood directors who started out making “B-Level” noir films and eventually graduated to bigger and bigger studio films. He was hired by his dad Max’s arch-rival, Walt Disney, to direct the excellent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That was a big step up in terms of budget from the RKO films noir that he had been making. Throughout the late ’60s he worked for 20th Century Fox, and it’s during this period that he made The Boston Strangler.
The film is based on the true story of the real Boston Strangler, a serial killer who was active in the early ’60s. It wasn’t the first film on the Boston Strangler: it was preceded by the equally imaginatively titled The Strangler, starring Victor Buono. But this was clearly the “A picture” take, with a major studio and known stars, such as Henry Fonda, George Kennedy and Tony Curtis who—SPOILER!—plays the strangler. Curtis was seen by the industry as a pretty boy, so here he was very much cast against type. He always had a desire to be seen in darker films, for example his brilliant turn in one of the bleakest of all noirs, Sweet Smell of Success.
Fleischer directed it with a ton of style, and you can see the seeds of the approach that Fincher would perfect in his own serial killer film, Zodiac. He incorporated split screen throughout, which was at the time starting to become a hip technique, with Grand Prix in 1966 and also in 1968 (the year The Boston Strangler was released) The Thomas Crown Affair. Brian De Palma had already started experimenting with the technique in his more underground films, and would soon become a master of the split screen.
The performances are all great. Henry Fonda plays the dickish head of the investigation, John S. Bottomly. Like Curtis, he was also trying out darker roles: this was same year as his villainous turn in Once Upon a Time in the West. Special mention should be given to some of the character actors who fill the supporting roles, like Jeff Corey and Murray Hamilton, who have both been favourites of mine ever since seeing them in John Franknheimer’s Seconds. It’s one of Tony Curtis’ last great roles. He seemed bitter that it didn’t get more awards attention, as seen in the interview on the disc, but he did get a Golden Globe nomination!
When The Boston Strangler was released, it was a sizable hit, but it’s reputation as only grown over the years. It’s a daring film from a workmanlike director who was trying out different things, including the deeply disturbing and surreal climax to the film. Fleischer would make better films before and after The Boston Strangler, but it’s a unique and influential police procedural which seems more of a part of the burgeoning New Hollywood scene then than the classic era he emerged from.
The disc that Plan B has compiled is the most feature-packed in the world. William Friedkin, who was in talks to direct the film at one point, talks about his love of the film and Fleischer’s work. Richard Fleischer’s son and the film’s cinematographer, Richard H. Kline, are featured in a 20-minute overview of the film and its place in Fleischer’s work. The disc also has 10-minute archival interviews with Richard Fleischer and Tony Curtis. The disc is rounded off with commentary by Kat Ellinger, a stills gallery and the original theatrical trailer.