Richard Fleischer is a direc­tor whose career is way over­due for a reap­praisal.  Though some of his films are acknowl­edged as clas­sics — Narrow Margin and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea are two good exam­ples — he is often dis­missed as a mere stu­dio jour­ney­man.  Like any pro­lific direc­tor, he’s got some duds in his back cat­a­log (par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing its final stretch in the 1980’) but he’s got an even big­ger ros­ter of impres­sive films to his cred­it from the 1950’s through the 1970’s.

When Fleischer was paired with the right gen­re and the right script, he could real­ly deliv­er.  Genres he showed a spe­cial flair for include film noir (Violent Saturday), sci­ence fic­tion (Fantastic Voyage) and the action film (Mr. Majestyk).

However, Fleischer’s most unique gen­re skill was his abil­i­ty to direct pow­er­ful true-crime fare about seri­al killers.  For exam­ple, he craft­ed an excel­lent treat­ment of the Leopold-Loeb case in Compulsion and direct­ed anoth­er fac­tu­al­ly-based cult fave in the chill­ing 10 Rillington Place.  That said, his best work in this unusu­al sub­gen­re is The Boston Strangler, an adap­ta­tion of Gerold Frank’s non­fic­tion book on the case.  From its cast­ing to its visu­al approach, it remains an unortho­dox and inspired piece of work.

Like a true police pro­ce­du­ral, The Boston Strangler starts with a crime, intro­duces the cops first and then works its way back to the killer. In 1963, Boston is ter­ror­ized by a series of mur­ders. All the vic­tims are wom­en, all are sex­u­al­ly assault­ed and the killer leaves a sig­na­ture on the scene by tying a piece of a women’s under­gar­ment around the vic­tims’ necks. John Bottomly (Henry Fonda) is assigned to the case again­st his will and does his best to fig­ure out the case using his ana­lyt­i­cal skills.

However, he doesn’t get a break until the killer gets slop­py — at the point, we are intro­duc­er to Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis), a hard-work­ing fam­i­ly man who is com­pelled to kill for rea­sons even he doesn’t under­stand. De Salvo is final­ly caught when he slips up, though the evi­dence is weak… and this forces Bottomly to try an unusu­al gam­bit to get a con­fes­sion out of De Salvo.

This is an unusu­al struc­ture for a Hollywood out­ing — and The Boston Strangler also gets an unusu­al visu­al approach to match it. Inspired by an art expo, Richard Fleischer chose to tell the sto­ry using a mul­ti-pan­el split-screen for sev­er­al sequences. Some crit­ics decry this tech­nique as mere flash but it actu­al­ly does a fine job putting the view­er on edge — there’s a great scene where a series of pan­els use p.o.v. cam­era angles to put the view­er in the killer’s shoes — and thus allow the filmmaker’s to con­vey the killer’s off-kil­ter mind­set. The mul­ti-pan­el tech­nique is also used to great effect in a few sce­nes where it depicts how the mur­ders cause pan­ic to rip­ple through the Boston com­mu­ni­ty.

The Boston Strangler fur­ther ben­e­fits from strong per­for­mances. As usu­al, Fonda pro­vides a clas­sic Hollywood pres­ence as the every­man-type strug­gling to come to grips with the case. His all-American appeal lends an ele­ment of com­fort for the view­er that is sore­ly need­ed. He is backed up nice­ly by George Kennedy and Murray Hamilton, both effec­tive­ly con­vey­ing the cyn­i­cism of cops with great cred­i­bil­i­ty.  There are also a few note­wor­thy cameos by actors play­ing some ini­tial sus­pects — the best is William Hickey as a tor­ment­ed masochist whose odd behav­ior and obses­sions makes him a sus­pect. His expres­sion of hurt when he dis­cov­ers he is a sus­pect is quite pos­si­bly the most heart­break­ing moment in the film.

Finally, and most impor­tant­ly, Tony Curtis is a rev­e­la­tion as DeSalvo. Even though he doesn’t make his first appear­ance until the halfway mark, he owns this movie. He digs into the role with Method-act­ing fer­vor, using well-craft­ed make­up to dis­tort his mat­inée idol fea­tures and skill­ful­ly phys­i­cal­iz­ing the con­flict­ed impuls­es of a man who has no idea why he is dri­ven to kill. The film’s finale hinges entire­ly upon his abil­i­ty to con­vey his abil­i­ty to word­less­ly con­vey this inner tur­moil and Curtis pulls it off in a way that is unfor­get­table.

Simply put, The Boston Strangler is a mas­ter­piece that blends psy­cho­log­i­cal real­ism and extreme visu­al styl­iza­tion to pow­er­ful effect. Long before there was Silence Of The Lambs or a Seven, this movie con­veyed the ter­ri­fy­ing mind­set of a seri­al killer with unflinch­ing pre­ci­sion.  It remains a neces­si­ty for stu­dents of the gen­re and one of finest achieve­ments of a direc­tor who deserves more praise than he often receives.