by Brandon Colvin
Flipping through the guide listings on my Dish Network cable package, I came across the info blurb for The Boston Strangler, a late 60s genre film about the infamous titular serial killer starring Henry Fonda as investigator John Bottomly and Tony Curtis as confessed murderer Albert DeSalvo (not to mention George Kennedy in a great supporting role as Detective Phil DiNatale). “Looks like it could be good,” I thought. I set it to record on my DVR. Weeks later, keeping in mind of the crapshoot that recording and watching random movies can be, I started the film, warily. I finished it with a blend of amazement and incredulity. “Did that just happen? Because I’ve never seen that before.”
What I’m referring to is the most remarkably original technique of director Richard Fleischer’s proto-slasher/thriller/mystery – the inventive and playful use of aspect ratio, masking, and split-screens, resulting in a general derangement of the accepted concept of the stable frame. The boldness of The Boston Strangler’s experiments is startling considering its classical Hollywood stars and sensationalist pulp material. Zeroing in upon details, carefully excluding information, juxtaposing contrasting elements, and offering simultaneous action from multiple angles, the film’s frame manipulation serves the purpose of transforming the narrative into a series of fragments, clues – sometimes they dead end, sometimes they contradict one another, sometimes they are incomplete; we never get the whole story. Superlatively cohesive in form and content – perhaps the only cinematic detective story that rivals its stylistic unity is David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) – The Boston Strangler is one hell of a find. You might come for the funky framings, but you’ll stay for the lurid violence, sexual deviance, social commentary, and gritty performances.