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Fox Home Entertainment presents
The Boston Strangler (1968)

"My God, you'd think after eight of them they'd stop opening the door for him."
- Police detective

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: September 07, 2004

Stars: Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, George Kennedy
Other Stars: Mike Kellin, Hurd Hatfield, Murray Hamilton, Jeff Corey, Sally Kellerman, William Marshall, James Brolin, Dana Elcar
Director: Richard Fleischer

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: R for (violence, brief nudity, rape, thematic material, homosexuality slurs)
Run Time: 01h:56m:05s
Release Date: September 07, 2004
UPC: 024543119982
Genre: crime

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

From 1962 through 1964, a serial killer (two decades before that phrase was coined) terrorized the Boston area. Unlike the standard serial killer, however, the Boston Strangler killed young and old women, of multiple races, sometimes with a sexual aspect, and sometimes not, defying the modern thinking on profiling in any number of ways. While Albert DeSalvo eventually confessed to the crimes, questions about his actual guilt in some, if not all, of the killings still remain. This filmic adaptation assumes that DeSalvo was a culprit, if not THE culprit, but emphasizes the difficulties in attempting to resolve these crimes across multiple jurisdictions, complicated by the vast number of demented members of the public who easily could be guilty.

The first hour or so is focused entirely on the police efforts to catch the strangler. Paralyzed by the problems of jurisdictions, the attorney general (William Marshall, best known from Blacula) appoints law school professor John S. Bottomly (Henry Fonda) to head the task force. The new force checks out a number of viable suspects but eventually come up with a dead end, desperate enough to turn to "psychic" Peter Hurkos. Then the Strangler, Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis), slips up and leaves one victim, Diane Cluny (Sally Kellerman in an early major role) badly wounded but alive. A second error results in his capture for breaking into an apartment, but the police only have a thin circumstantial case against him. It is then up to Bottomly and Detective Phil DiNatale (George Kennedy) to prove that DeSalvo is the Strangler and break through his denials and professions of innocence, as well as penetrating the cloud of insanity that makes him truly believe he is innocent.

The film is strangely compelling despite its odd structure. It's hardly a whodunit, since DeSalvo barely appears until the second half, and then it's immediately clear that he is the Strangler. The balance of the film is devoted to psychological manipulation between Bottomly and DeSalvo, which bears more than a trivial resemblance to that of Porfiry Petrovich and Raskolnikov. A masterful technical stroke is director Richard Fleischer's use of extensive split screens (often five or six images at once) to give a kaleidoscopic vision of the increasingly fragmented and paranoid Boston area as the Strangler continues his reign of terror. While such techniques are often just a flashy gimmick, it's firmly in the service of the storytelling here and makes a huge impression. DeSalvo's fractured personality is emphasized by the constant mirror images that populate the second half of the film.

Tony Curtis was justifiably celebrated for his image-shattering turn as DeSalvo, giving a credible performance as a dissociative personality. Though he had done some drama earlier in his career, the violent and brutal side of DeSalvo is a world away from the light romantic comedy that had been Curtis' bread and butter for years in 1968. It's appalling that his work here was not even nominated for an Oscar, and that it never turned into a second, more serious acting career for him. Fonda is reliable as always, at first reluctant to take on the task and then diving into it with an obsessive vengeance as he takes on responsibility for each and every successive killing. George Kennedy uncharacteristically underplays his role, content to support Fonda for the most part. Only Curtis makes any stab at a Boston accent, and it's somewhat inconsistent. But even if Fonda could manage it, viewers would most likely be jarred every time he opened his mouth so it's probably just as well.

Multijurisdictional issues still plague law enforcement efforts to this day, and the serial killer issue is no exception. There's a surprising amount of political argument onscreen in what's sold as a titillating crime story. The violence is definitely brutal, and DeSalvo's rape of Cluny in particular is very hard to take in its viciousness. The reputation of the picture is definitely deserved, and it still has a substantial impact over 35 years after the fact. Added to that impact is the number of viable suspects onscreen who aren't put away like DeSalvo (who never actually stood trial for the crimes). Could some or all of them have been additional Stranglers?

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 2.35:1 anamorphic picture is quite attractive, with hardly any flaws beyond the occasional speckle of dirt. Color is naturalistic, with vivid reds splashing on the generally brown color design. Black levels are quite good, with acceptable levels of shadow detail. The picture is sharp and crisp, without added edge enhancement or significant artifacting. If you've only ever seen the film in pan-and-scan on television, the impact of the wide Cinemascope frame is entirely different, especially in the split screen segments.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Spanish, Frenchyes
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Both stereo and mono English mixes are provided. There's some modest directionality on the stereo version, most noticeable in the split-screen segments. Dialogue is clear throughout, with hardly any hiss or noise (especially in contrast to the extremely noisy trailer elsewhere on the disc). The infrequent music sounds decent for the age of the track, but low bass is unsurprisingly missing.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 Other Trailer(s) featuring Don't Say a Word, From Hell, The Grapes of Wrath, Joy Ride, My Darling Clementine, One Hour Photo
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:10m:18s

Extra Extras:
  1. Newsreel footage of the Boston Strangler murders
Extras Review: Even though it's not a full-blown special edition, Fox provides some worthwhile extras to this picture. First, there is actual period Movietone newsreel footage of the hysteria in Boston during the Strangler's reign of terror. While some of the audio has been lost, it gives an immediacy to the real-life situation that might be omitted in the Hollywoodization of the story. Also interesting is the AMC Backstory episode devoted to the film, with discussion of DeSalvo's life and death, and interviews with Curtis, director Richard Fleischer, and studio executive Richard Zanuck. It's compact, well-assembled and provides an excellent overview of the political climate and the making of the film as well as its reception. A teaser and theatrical trailer round out the package, with half a dozen miscellaneous other trailers related to either serial killers or Henry Fonda tagging along behind.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

One of the seminal serial killer dramas hits DVD with a modest but worthwhile package. It may be hard to take for sensitive viewers, but it's quite thoughtful and engrossing.


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