Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the Denzel Washington thriller The Little Things hitting theaters and HBO Max, we’re looking back at other movies about detectives hunting serial killers.
Long before Zac Efron showed he could use his chiseled good looks to hunt unsuspecting victims as real-life serial killer Ted Bundy in Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile, matinee idol Tony Curtis went homicidal in The Boston Strangler. Based on Gerold Frank’s book, and directed by the late journeyman Richard Fleischer, the 1968 thriller cast the Some Like It Hot star as Albert DeSalvo, who murdered 13 women throughout the Boston area in the early ’60s.
You don’t see Curtis until an hour in. Before that, it’s all Boston’s finest, rounding up Beantown deviants and often heading straight into dead ends. Led by special investigator John Bottomly (Henry Fonda), this crew of straight-faced, chain-smoking, highly problematic detectives and sergeants (which include those old stalwarts George Kennedy and Murray Hamilton) get to know their depraved suspects, like the serial sex addict (George Furth of Blazing Saddles) who bedded almost 500 women in six months or the suspicious character (future Prizzi’s Honor kingpin William Hickey) who takes women’s handbags and does god knows what with them. (These darkly comic moments are probably remnants of British playwright Terence Rattigan’s rejected draft, a bizarre comedy that—according to Curtis—alleged that the killer was legendary Hollywood producer/studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck.)
Working with cinematographer Richard H. Kline, visual designer Fred Harpman, editor Marion Rothman, and photographic effects expert L.B. Abbott, Fleischer makes the first half of Strangler visually busy. He often populates the screen with different angles of the same shot or various scenes making up one simultaneous montage. (It makes one wonder how this film played on television back in the day, when HDTVs and widescreen formatting didn’t exist and people were stuck with— gasp!—the dreaded pan-and-scan format.) As Fleischer told American Cinematographer, he went for this experimental, multi-paneled filmmaking because it suited a story of “simultaneous action,” and made it so he didn’t have to “cut back and forth in a conventional manner from one action to the other.”
By the time we get to the actual Strangler, things slow down considerably so that we can focus on Curtis. As it turns out, DeSalvo is a working-class Joe with a wife and two kids, who makes time between his various jobs to find his way into women’s apartments, either knocking on the door for some trumped-up reason or just straight-up breaking in. Even though it’s never been proven, the movie declares that the killer has a split personality, with the regular DeSalvo unaware of what the psychotic DeSalvo is doing. The rest of The Boston Strangler has Curtis going one-on-one with Fonda’s investigator, in an interrogation that drums up a lot of bad memories that DeSalvo would prefer hidden. Curtis, who already proved he had no problem going dark when he played the sleazy press agent in The Sweet Smell Of Success, impressively turns up the repressed emotion and caged intensity, while Fonda is all steely, stern verve.
As Kurt Loder once said about Blue Velvet, The Boston Strangler is a laugh-out-loud horror show, an icy thriller with surprising moments of gut-busting humor. It’s also littered with familiar faces: Sally Kellerman, Alex Rocco, William “Blacula” Marshall, even a very young James Brolin. Fans of David Fincher’s murderous opuses Seven and Zodiac might get a kick out of this ’60s-era serial-killer movie, with its beleaguered authorities chasing false lead after false lead before they eventually find the culprit, who turns out to be more methodical (and more handsome) than they expected.