The Boston Strangler (1968)
July 31, 2020 | by Shannon
The Boston Strangler (1968), based on a true story, is quite uniformly recognized as the greatest dramatic performance of Tony Curtis’ career. As the infamous title character, Tony donned a fake nose, dark contact lenses, and padded his midsection in attempt to hide his handsomeness. Disguise or no disguise, Tony’s performance in this avant-garde film, one of the first to use the multiple-image technique on screen, is riveting, captivating, and completely believable.
The film should have ushered in a new phase of Tony’s career, and propelled him into more dramatic roles that would make better use of his obvious talent.
But it didn’t.
It’s the early 1960s, and there’s a mad strangler loose in Boston. Women of all ages and ethnicities are being sexually assaulted and strangled in Boston and the surrounding cities. One of the most shocking aspects of the murders is that despite the great press coverage, women continue to let the man responsible, known as “The Boston Strangler,” into their homes: with each new murder, there’s no sign of forced entry…
Local authorities can’t get past the red tape to work together on finding The Boston Strangler, so the Massachusetts Attorney General assigns John Bottomly (Henry Fonda) to head a “Strangler Bureau” to finally catch the strangler and bring him to justice. Bottomly works closely with Detective Phil DiNatale (George Kennedy), and, as more women fall victim to the strangler, Bottomly even resorts to less conventional methods, and hires renown psychic Peter Hurkos (George Voskovec) to point them in the right direction.
Various shady (and some not so shady) Bostonians are questioned, but DiNatale and Bottomly continue to hit dead ends.
Almost exactly one hour into the film, we see him.
The Boston Strangler
Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis) is intense, brooding, and a split personality. This mentally disturbed individual is a dedicated family man on one side, while his other personality is the menacing, brutal, Boston Strangler.
DeSalvo’s dominant personality would never dream of the terrible things he does as The Boston Strangler, and Albert manages to block his violent acts from memory.
Detective DiNatale and Bottomly finally catch a break in discovering the identity of the strangler when DeSalvo doesn’t follow through with the murder of one of his victims. Dianne Cluny (Sally Kellerman) puts up a valiant fight, biting DeSalvo’s hand in the process, and breaks free of her bindings while Albert is distracted by his image in a mirror. He flees, but Albert is soon caught after another potential victim’s boyfriend catches him breaking into their apartment. A chase ensues, and DeSalvo is taken into custody by the police.
Getting a Confession
But now Albert DeSalvo’s family-man side is dominant, and he denies ever attempting to break into the apartment…he’s sent to the hospital for mental observation, and it’s while DiNatale and Bottomly are visiting Dianne Cluny in the same hospital that a chance meeting with Albert in the elevator makes him a strangler suspect: DiNatale and Bottomly spot his bitten hand, and are confident they just may have their man.
But Albert DeSalvo’s mental instability is established, and his doctor worries that questioning by Bottomly about the murders will send DeSalvo into shock. Bottomly argues that if DeSalvo is the murderer, that may not be such a bad thing…
The doctor agrees, and allows Bottomly to question Albert, but due to his mental state, any confession Bottomly gets from DeSalvo will not be admissible evidence in court…
After several interview sessions, Bottomly notices a breakthrough: Albert sees flashes of his crimes in his mind, and begins to relive and pantomime his last murder before going into the shock his doctor predicted.
John Bottomly has found The Boston Strangler. Albert DeSalvo may not ever be convicted, but at least he’ll be locked away for good.
A True Story
The Boston Strangler was loosely—and I do mean loosely—based on a true story. Between June of 1962 and January of 1964, 13 women from ages 85 to 19 were sexually assaulted and strangled. Eventually, after being charged with several assaults unrelated to the stranglings, Albert DeSalvo confessed to being The Boston Strangler.
Although DeSalvo’s mental instability was established, he was not, as the film portrays, a split personality. In fact, at the time of filming—and even still to this day—authorities questioned just how many of the Boston stranglings DeSalvo actually committed. The lack of consistent modus operandi, no physical evidence linking him to the crimes, and the evaluations of doctors who treated DeSalvo, led many to believe that he was not The Boston Strangler, just a man who sought infamy. In fact, as of 2013, DeSalvo’s guilt has only been confirmed in one, the final, of the 13 murders.
But Albert DeSalvo was pleased with the fame his “Boston Strangler” title brought him, and even sent The Boston Strangler film director, Richard Fleischer, a handmade wallet during production as a sign of his support for the project.
The fact that the Boston stranglings occurred just a few years before The Boston Strangler film went into production meant that Fleischer’s movie would be under intense criticism: the actual stranglings wouldn’t be too far back in people’s memories, and the guy who confessed to them was still alive.…Fleischer would need a perfect script, intriguing camera work, and, perhaps most importantly, an actor in the lead role who audiences could believe as Albert DeSalvo, if the film was to be a success.
A Miscast Writer
20th Century Fox bought the rights to Gerold Frank’s book, The Boston Strangler, for $250,000. English screenwriter Terence Rattigan was the first hired to adapt the book into a screenplay. But as Fleischer states in his memoir, Just Tell Me When to Cry [aff. link], the experience with Rattigan on The Boston Strangler was proof that
“It’s just as possible to miscast a writer for a film as it is an actor…”
Fleischer needed a script that would stay true to the core facts of the Boston stranglings in a dramatic and suspenseful way. What he received from Rattigan was definitely not that:
“Rattigan went away to some Caribbean island, where he had a house, to write a treatment of the screenplay. A couple of months later Robert Fryer [the producer] and I received the forty or so pages he had written and were appalled. This totally confused treatment bore very little relationship to the book…worse still, and most puzzling, it was written as a comedy! Heavy-handed and lame, but a comedy.”
The Boston Strangler as a comedy.
Can you imagine??!
Rattigan’s script was obviously not used, though according to Fleischer
“…his conscience didn’t bother him quite enough to return any of the money he was paid for not being able to do the job.”
After Rattigan’s…interesting take on the story, screenwriter Edward Anhalt was brought on. It was Anhalt’s intriguing and gripping screenplay that would be used in the film.
A New Challenge
By 1967, Tony Curtis was looking for a change in his career. Tony had found consistent work over the years, but his film roles of late had been disappointing. As Tony would say in his 1993 autobiography [aff. link], it was time to shake things up:
“The total gross of my movies up to then, I figured, was about sixty million dollars. Not bad for a street kid out of New York. But I wasn’t happy with the recent pictures. My career was losing momentum, and I needed a new challenge. I needed a new kind of movie. The Boston Strangler was it.”
Now all Tony had to do was convince director Richard Fleischer, and 20th Century Fox head Richard Zanuck, that he could do it. Fleischer didn’t need much convincing, and was ready to cast Tony as DeSalvo. But Zanuck worried Tony would be too recognizable in the role, and wasn’t so sure that someone whose career had been primarily built on light romantic leads could credibly handle such an intense role. Tony however, was confident in his abilities:
“Up to that point I had mostly played the romantic love interest, but I knew there was no reason I couldn’t play a psychopath.”
Well said, Tony, I love his confidence!
Tony's Genius Plan
To convince Zanuck he could pull it off, Tony thought up a quite ingenious plan: he decided to show Zanuck that he could hide his handsomeness, and truly be convincing in the physicality of the role.
At home one day, Tony built himself a fake nose out of putty. He wore the nose with dark makeup around his eyelashes and eyebrows, and messed up his famously perfect hair. Then Tony took pictures of his new appearance in profile and straight on, as if he were being booked at a police station. He had two dozen grainy copies made of the pictures, and passed them on to Richard Fleischer. According to Tony, Fleischer then
“…went into Zanuck’s office, threw them [the pictures] on the table, and said, ‘Here’s your strangler’. Zanuck said, ‘Yeah, that guy could be him. I like that look—who is it? Fleischer said, ‘Tony!’ And that’s how I got the part.”
The basic look Tony created in his homemade mug shots was used in the film. In addition to the fake nose and un-characteristically un-perfect Tony Curtis hair, Tony estimates that about 40 pounds of weight were added to his waist (Tony says in his 2008 book that he gained 15 pounds for the film, but he looks pretty svelte in it to me!). Tony wore ankle weights and army boots that were a couple sizes too big to change his gait, and even went out and bought some dark contact lenses to hide the blue eyes that were so much a part of the Tony Curtis look fans expected to see on screen.
Travilla's Expert Use of Color
My favorite Hollywood costume designer, Billy Travilla, furthered Tony’s complete transformation into Albert DeSalvo. Travilla, a master of color, knew that the colors he chose to dress Tony in on screen could greatly contribute to the menacing tone Tony’s DeSalvo needed to set for audiences.
As such, Travilla dressed Tony in various hues of olive green throughout the film, a color Travilla believed invoked mistrust. According to Billy Travilla,
“Tony Curtis was the central character and was never to be trusted throughout the whole movie. So I put him in tones of olive or dirty green—a distrusting color, the color of dead leaves.”
An interesting side note that really underscores Tony’s roots—remember his father was a tailor—is that Travilla would call Tony “a pain in the neck to work with” because he was such a perfectionist! The impoverished, street-smart kid from New York who so reveled in dressing well as a Hollywood star, would even see to it that the olive green stocking caps, jeans, and heavy army boots he wore as a serial killer in The Boston Strangler, were up to his high personal style-standards.
Tony’s transformation into Albert DeSalvo was so complete, he’d call it the most “eerie” experience of his life:
“Looking into the mirror, I wasn’t there anymore. I was nowhere in sight. Instead that brooding, suspicious, uneasy image of a man was looking back at me. I couldn’t wait until the end of the day, when I could take off all that makeup and see that adorable blue-eyed kid again.”
An "Interior" Performance
Tony’s physical transformation aside, his performance itself was expertly crafted. The Boston Strangler has no music, and very little dialogue for the DeSalvo character, meaning that Tony would have to subtly, but obviously, project the internal thoughts and struggles of his Albert DeSalvo.
Tony’s “interior” performance, as he’d call it, transferred brilliantly on screen. Through the flicker of his eye or a slight movement of his mouth, Tony masterfully conveys to the audience a flash of a memory from a strangling. We see the split personality of Albert DeSalvo through the confusion Tony shows as these graphic memories surface, and distrurb the “family man” side of DeSalvo’s two personalities.
It’s a wonder Tony was not at least nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the film. Curtis biographer Barry Paris would go so far as to call Tony’s work on The Boston Strangler “by far the best performance by any actor that year.” It’s an assessment that’s hard to argue with.
The Multiple-Image Technique
Apart from the screenplay and Tony’s intense performance, the final element that sets The Boston Strangler apart as an avant-garde film from the era is Richard Fleischer’s expert use of the multiple-image technique.
The American Society of Cinematographers defines the multiple-image technique as
“a system of presenting several scenes in panels on the screen simultaneously [which] adds up to [an] exciting method for telling a complex story on film.”
Using this technique, Fleischer could show Tony’s DeSalvo encroaching on his next victim, what his unsuspecting victim is doing as DeSalvo inevitably approaches, and a still object, such as the doorknob DeSalvo is about to turn, all on screen at the same time.
The technique, used for about 35% of the film, kept audiences engaged, and the suspense alive, something Fleischer knew would be a unique challenge since viewers came into the movie theater already knowing who the killer was:
“One great challenge on the project [The Boston Strangler] evolved from the fact that the suspense which you normally have in a “murder film” does not exist in The Boston Strangler, because — first of all, you know who did it right from the start and, secondly, you know that there’s going to be a series of murders. So there is no great surprise about discovering another murder. Faced with a problem like that, as a director, I concluded that what I would have to play for would be the anticipation and suspense. I used the split screen to enhance both of those elements.”
This visual choice more than accomplished Fleischer’s objectives, and audiences, despite the fact that the actual Boston stranglings weren’t so far removed from memory, where kept in suspense throughout the film. By December of 1970, The Boston Strangler easily surpassed the $8.6 million it needed to break even, earning $11.1 million at the box office.
Tony and The Beatles!
But despite the box office return and his uniformly praised performance, The Boston Strangler did not usher in a successful second phase of Tony Curtis’ career as a dramatic actor. And there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it—there’s nothing I can find from Tony’s life or the time to explain why The Boston Strangler was his last great film role. Tony would work constantly in film and television until 2008, but he would never again reach the career heights he’d seen in the mid-1950s to just about the mid-1960s.
Luckily, Tony would have some awesome experiences with the Beatles and The Rolling Stones as he adjusted to the course his career was taking, and the disappointing lack of recognition for his talent and work from his colleagues.
In 1967, Tony was greatly complimented when the Beatles included him on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Tony was beyond flattered to have his face on the cover of an album by the world’s most influential musicians, with the likes of such legends as Marilyn Monroe.
“It was particularly uplifting for me, partly because I was feeling so downhearted, so upset that I wasn’t getting the movies I wanted to make. I remember that Beatles cover as an emotional oasis during a tough period in my professional life.”
And if that weren’t enough, Paul McCartney even dedicated a performance to Tony when he was filming The Chastity Belt in Venice, Italy. One day after filming, Tony went to see the Beatles, who were performing in front of the Doge’s Palace:
“…I could hear Paul saying, ‘We’re dedicating tonight’s concert to Tony Curtis.’ Paul was incredibly nice to me. As I said, I badly needed strokes from my fellow entertainers. I was feeling vey alone and underappreciated, so I was especially grateful when someone whose work I so respected let me know he appreciated mine.”
Tony and The Rollings Stones!
Around this time Tony also became “great friends” with Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones, who, like Tony, was a talented painter in his spare time. Tony and Wood bonded over discussions of painting technique and their shared love of art.
Tony and wife number two, Christine Kauffman, would sometimes go to parties with the Stones, and in his 2008 autobiography [aff. link], Tony recalls one party in particular where his dance moves brought down the house:
“…I got up and started to dance with a chair that had ball bearings for feet, so I could spin it around and make some crazy moves. It knocked everyone out.”
I absolutely love imagining Classic Hollywood’s Tony Curtis going to parties with the hedonistic Rolling Stones, and stealing the show with his dance moves. I guess the muscle memory of that stunt work Gene Kelly taught Tony back in the 1950s during his swashbuckling days never left him.
And that wraps it up not just for The Boston Strangler, but for our month with Tony Curtis. I’ve got to say, of all the stars I’ve highlighted, Tony Curtis has got to be the most surprising. I can’t believe I spent so many years as a Classic Hollywood fan completely overlooking Tony, his charming wit, and proven talent. Whether playing a musician/woman/millionaire (Some Like It Hot), a morally bankrupt press agent (Sweet Smell of Success), a mischievous and lovable naval officer (Operation Petticoat), an archetypical good-guy (The Great Race) or a deranged psychopath (The Boston Strangler), Tony Curtis is utterly and completely believable.
I’m a fan.
Stick with me next month! As TCM celebrates its annual Summer Under the Stars, I’ll be celebrating one of my very favorite stars ever, the beautiful, smart, strong-willed, and athletic, Esther Williams.