‘True’ crime

'The Boston Strangler' times two on Hulu

Courtesy: 20th Century Fox

Boston was in a panic. Thirteen women were murdered from June 1962 to January 1964. All were in their homes; all were alone. There was no evidence of forced entry, and though the cabinets and dressers were ransacked, police couldn’t determine if the culprit was looking for anything in particular. 

The victim’s ages ran the gamut from 19 to 85 and were located across multiple precincts of the greater Boston area. But the bodies showed signs of sexual violence, and all had a piece of fabric tied around their necks with an unusual knot. That led people to believe it was all the work of one deranged individual. Two reporters from the Record American nicknamed the perpetrator “The Boston Strangler,” and the police department conducted one of the largest manhunts in city history.

These are a few of the disturbing details behind some of the most notorious killings in American history. Naturally, they make good fodder for the movies. Several, in fact, but let’s take two: 1968’s The Boston Strangler and 2023’s Boston Strangler, both available to stream exclusively on Hulu. The films are two sides of the same story: one from the cops’ point of view, and one from the reporters’. But from the same information, both come to staggeringly different conclusions with significantly different villains.

Let’s start with 1968’s The Boston Strangler, directed by Hollywood journeyman Richard Fleischer. Using a similar technique Steven Spielberg would employ seven years later with Jaws, Fleischer and screenwriter Edward Anhalt withhold the monster visually for the film’s first hour. Instead, Fleischer and company use split screen to ratchet up the suspense of the killings and the discovery of the bodies.  

The reveal of the killer is one of those classic cinematic moments: The camera tracks slowly through a living room to reveal Albert DeSalvo, a mild-mannered man watching television with his family. And the audience knows DeSalvo is the killer because it’s Tony Curtis in the role. Curtis was one of the most beautiful creatures ever to stand before, behind or next to a camera, and here he uses heavy makeup and a fake nose to make himself look unremarkable. “Like anyone I’ve ever seen,” as one woman describes him.

Despite Curtis’ performance, The Boston Strangler (1968) is not really about DeSalvo. It’s about the police trying to find him. George Kennedy plays homicide detective Phil DiNatale, and Henry Fonda leads the ensemble as John S. Bottomly, the man tasked with coordinating the investigation across multiple departments. 

On the flip side is writer-director Matt Ruskin’s newly released Boston Strangler, which focuses on the two Record American reporters, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), who brought the connections of the victims and the details of the murders to the public. Much like the police work in the ’68 film, the ’23 movie documents the hard work, long nights and endless reading involved in trying to find the one thing everyone else overlooked.

Both Stranglers are obsessed with the psychology of criminal minds. The earlier film leads viewers to believe that the monsters in our midst can be known. The latest version wonders, to use the parlance of our time, “But what if we’re wrong?” 

That’s the stuff of true crime and revisionist history. Both movies are narratives constructed to maximize suspense, develop characters and engage viewers, yet both lean so heavily on the procedural aspects and the “based on a true story” disclaimer that they portend to be some form of authenticity.

That’s what makes them more interesting to consider in tandem than apart. Formally, the ’68 film is much more exciting with its use of split screen, narrow framings, impressionistic editing and performances. The ’23 movie, by comparison, is a drab affair confined to shallow focus and a battery of performances all in the same key. 

Yet, Ruskin’s new take finds resonance. While the original film wonders why so many women opened their doors to a stranger, particularly in an atmosphere of panic, the recent update takes time to consider the experience of the victims. “What must that have been like for her?” McLaughlin asks. 

Both inquiries speak to the curiosities of the era, as do the endings. The ’68 Boston Strangler concludes with a cry to solve America’s mental illness problem, placing the blood on society’s hands. The ’23 version lays the blame on another collective. Watch the two together, and the question seems to be, what terrifies you more: apathy or conspiracy?

ON SCREEN: The Boston Strangler (1968) and Boston Strangler (2023) are streaming on Hulu.

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