The Boston Strangler (film)

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The Boston Strangler
The Boston Strangler.JPG
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRichard Fleischer
Screenplay byEdward Anhalt
Based onThe Boston Strangler
by Gerold Frank
Produced byJames Cresson
Robert Fryer
CinematographyRichard H. Kline
Edited byMarion Rothman
Music byLionel Newman
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • October 16, 1968 (1968-10-16) (United States)
Running time
116 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$4.1 million[1]
Box office$17,810,894[2]

The Boston Strangler is a 1968 American biographical crime film loosely based on the true story of the Boston Strangler and the 1966 book by Gerold Frank.[3] It was directed by Richard Fleischer and stars Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo, the strangler, and Henry Fonda as John S. Bottomly, the chief detective who came to fame for obtaining DeSalvo's confession.[4][5] Curtis was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his performance. The cast also featured George Kennedy, Murray Hamilton and Sally Kellerman.


After three murders of elderly women, the victims being strangled and penetrated with foreign objects, the Boston police conclude that they have a serial killer to catch. As the murders stretch over several police jurisdictions, Massachusetts Attorney General Edward W. Brooke appoints John S. Bottomly as head of a "Strangler Bureau" to coordinate the investigation. Several suspects are interrogated and released.

As the body count grows, Bottomly, in desperation, calls in a psychic, Peter Hurkos, who pinpoints Eugene T. O'Rourke, a man who seems to fit the profile. The severely masochistic O'Rourke is taken in for psychiatric observation for ten days but nothing implicated him to the murders. Another murder is committed while O'Rourke is under observation, clearing him of suspicion.

While the 1963 funeral of John F. Kennedy is on television, Albert DeSalvo leaves his wife and children, under the pretext of work. He gains entry into the apartment of a woman, Dianne Cluny, by posing as a plumber sent by the building supervisor. He attacks her, tying her to her bed with rags ripped from her dress. DeSalvo is taken aback by the sight of himself in a mirror as he tries to subdue Dianne and she struggles free and bites his hand; DeSalvo flees.

He tries to enter the apartment of another woman, only to find that her husband is home. DeSalvo is apprehended by a passing police patrol. Found incompetent to stand trial for attempted breaking and entering, he is committed to a hospital for psychiatric observation. By chance, Bottomly and Detective Phil DiNatale pass by DeSalvo in an elevator, where they had been visiting Dianne, who survived the earlier attack. Observing the wound on DeSalvo's hand (Dianne, who survived his attack, could remember biting him but not his appearance), the pair make him a suspect for the Boston Strangler murders.

Conventional interrogation is ineffective because the treating physician thinks that DeSalvo suffers from a split personality: he has two identities that are unaware of each other. His "normal" personality fabricates memories in place of the memories of murder committed by the "strangler" personality. The treating physician thinks that DeSalvo could be made to confront the facts but that the shock risks putting him in a catatonic state. Bottomly expresses the opinion that catatonia would be the second-best thing to a conviction.

Under the condition, imposed by DeSalvo's defense counsel, that none of what comes to light is admissible evidence in court, Bottomly is allowed a final round of interviews with DeSalvo. After several sessions, Bottomly manages to reveal DeSalvo's hidden personality to himself. Reeling from the shock, DeSalvo slips into a catatonic state.



Film rights to Frank's book were bought for $250,000 (equivalent to $2.09 million in 2021). Terence Rattigan was hired to do the script but the producer was unhappy with it. Edward Anhalt was then brought in.[6]

Box Office[edit]

According to Fox records the film required $8,625,000 in rentals to break even and by 11 December 1970 had made $11,125,000 so made a profit to the studio.[7]

Critical response[edit]

Film critic Roger Ebert gave three stars out of four but criticized the film's content,

The Boston Strangler requires a judgment not only on the quality of the film (very good), but also on its moral and ethical implications.... The events described in Frank's book have been altered considerably in the film. This is essentially a work of fiction 'based' on the real events. And based on them in such a way to entertain us, which it does, but for the wrong reasons, I believe. This film, which was made so well, should not have been made at all.[3]

In the same vein, The New York Times film critic Renata Adler wrote,

The Boston Strangler represents an incredible collapse of taste, judgment, decency, prose, insight, journalism and movie technique, and yet—through certain prurient options that it does not take—it is not quite the popular exploitation film that one might think. It is as though someone had gone out to do a serious piece of reporting and come up with 4,000 clippings from a sensationalist tabloid. It has no depth, no timing, no facts of any interest and yet, without any hesitation, it uses the name and pretends to report the story of a living man, who was neither convicted nor indicted for the crimes it ascribes to him. Tony Curtis 'stars'—the program credits word—as what the movie takes to be the Boston strangler".[8]

In 2004, film critic Dennis Schwartz discussed the film's style,

What mostly filled the split-screen was the many interrogation scenes, where on one side was the suspect and interrogator in the present and on the other side the suspect and his interrogator in flashbacks. Fleischer eschews the graphic violence in the murders and aims instead to try to understand the killer through the script's bogus psychology. The big things the film tried didn't pan out as that interesting, as the flashy camera work counteracts the conventional storyline chronicling the rise, manhunt, fall, and prosecution of De Salvo.[9]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p255
  2. ^ "The Boston Strangler, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved May 23, 2012.
  3. ^ a b Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun-Times, film review, October 22, 1968. Last accessed: February 22, 2011.
  4. ^ "The Boston Strangler". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved February 29, 2016.
  5. ^ The Boston Strangler at IMDb
  6. ^ Dunne, John Gregory (1969). The Studio. p. 23-24.
  7. ^ Silverman, Stephen M (1988). The Fox that got away : the last days of the Zanuck dynasty at Twentieth Century-Fox. L. Stuart. p. 327.
  8. ^ Adler, Ranata. The New York Times, film review, October 17, 1968. Last accessed: February 22, 2011.
  9. ^ Schwartz, Dennis. Ozus' World Movie Review, film review, January 4, 2004. Last accessed: February 22, 2011.

External links[edit]