Monday, May 9, 2011

A later Fox docudrama

Fox did a lot of docudramas back in the 1940s, many of which I've already recommended, starting with one of the earliest, The House on 92nd Street. This time, however, I'm going to recommend a docudrama from the 1960s: The Boston Strangler, airing at 6:00 PM ET tonight on the Fox Movie Channel.

The "Boston Strangler" is a movie about the real-life serial killer Albert DeSalvo, who terrorized the Boston area in the early 1960s by worming his way into women's apartments and killing ten or so of them. (They of course didn't have DNA evidence back then to make things a bit easier for them.) Police know they have a serial killer on their hands, but lead investigator Detective DiNatale (George Kennedy) is at a loss. The public is clamoring for something to be done, which is unsurprising since I don't think any of us wants to see a serial killer on the loose. To deal with the political pressure, then state Attorney General Edward Brooke (who would go on to become a US Senator) orders underling John Bottomly (Henry Fonda), who'd rather be doing eminent domain law, to help on the Boston Strangler case.

Now, this being a docudrams, we already know from the facts how the case unravels. One of the would be murder victims fights back, surviving the attack and injuring one Albert De Salvo in the process; this enables the police to crack the case. What we're looking for in a movie like The Boston Strangler is how we get there. That's pretty interesting and takes up the first half of the movie. An interesting technique is used: multiple split-screens showing either things going on in two different places at the same time, or the same scene from two different angles. It takes some getting used to, but it actually works fairly well. It probably worked better in an actual movie theater, where the much larger screen mean that scenes with several splits means the various pieces won't be impossibly tiny. This isn't a movie to watch on a smaller TV, to be honest.

The way the story is told also means that we don't even see Albert DeSalvo until about an hour into the movie. He's played by Tony Curtis, and the second half of the movie is his. The movie takes the view that DeSalvo was seriously mentally ill, suffering from multiple personality disorder in which one of the personalities was the killer. As such, much of the second half of the film is set in a mental hospital where DeSalvo is being evaluated by Bottomly and others while it can be determined whether he's fit to stand trial. Curtis is excellent as the tormented man who to people around him seemed like a normal family man. (You'd think they'd have noticed it if he had a split personality.) There's not much here resembling Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit, and certainly not Polly Bergen in The Caretakers.

That having been said, The Boston Strangler is a movie of questionable accuracy. In real life, DeSalvo wasn't thought to have multiple personality disorder. Futhermore, there are now doubts about whether DeSalvo was actually the Boston Strangler. To be fair to the movie, though, you can still have a good movie that isn't quite honest with the truth, and The Boston Strangler certainly fills the bill in that regard. Clearly, it's not a family picture, and it's not one you can sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch, either.

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