Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Telling the Story of the Boston Strangler

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that "The Boston Strangler," which premiered on this day in 1968, "requires a judgment not only on the quality of the film (very good), but also on its moral and ethical implications."

And, as a journalist, I agree. The Boston Strangler case was terrifying for the people in the Boston area and disturbing for everyone else. A film account needed to be faithful to the known facts, to promote knowledge instead of fear — but, as Ebert pointed out, "real events [were] being offered as entertainment." In my opinion, the movie was a clear attempt to capitalize on emotion, a tactic that has been used more frequently in the years that have passed, presumably because it was mildly successful in 1968 (the movie earned more than four times what it cost to make it).

Ebert felt the movie was a "deliberate exploitation of the tragedy of Albert DeSalvo and his victims." And that, I think, is a legitimate complaint.

But one of the things I have learned is that the truth is often up for grabs, especially in the movies. Then as now, people wanted easy, satisfying answers like the ones they saw on TV shows like Perry Mason (today I suppose it would be Law & Order), even if the facts have to be manipulated.

And the DeSalvo case was loaded with inconsistencies and other factual issues.

Ebert complained that the movie wasn't as "beneficial and ... educational" as its defenders claimed, but he seemed to buy the basic premise, that Albert DeSalvo (played in the movie by Tony Curtis) was, in fact, responsible for killing 13 women in the early 1960s.

And he never stated how the movie could have been educational.

It is important to remember that the crimes and DeSalvo's arrest and conviction — and the premiere of the movie about the case — all occurred in the 1960s. That was at least a quarter of a century before most people ever heard of DNA evidence. Until then, physical evidence linking DeSalvo to the killings was tenuous. It was only through a confession he gave after being arrested on a rape charge that he became a suspect.

In fact, DeSalvo was never convicted of any of the Boston Strangler killings. He was convicted of a series of rapes. Henry Fonda gave his usual stellar performance as the investigator who interrogated DeSalvo and obtained his confession to the crimes, and Ebert had praise for him. Curtis, too. Ebert wrote that Curtis "acts better than he has in a decade."

But his complaints didn't really address the fact that the story seemed to have been written to fit a particular worldview. In that way, I have always likened it to the Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination — which is ironic, I suppose, since one of the Boston Strangler's victims was killed the day after the assassination.

The Warren Commission has been accused of overlooking or glossing over some things that didn't fit a preconceived conclusion. I have my own thoughts on that, and that is another discussion for another time, but I definitely believe that the Boston Strangler case was that way.

Of course, if the technology to obtain the necessary evidence didn't exist 50 years ago, there wasn't much that could be done about it. But even after that technology became available, there were questions about the cases that remained unanswered.

Ultimately, DNA evidence did link DeSalvo to at least one of the victims, but there were too many variations for one killer to be responsible for all, some continue to say. There was a wide disparity in the ages of the victims (the youngest was 19, the oldest was 85), they belonged to different demographic groups and occupied different social positions, and the methods of killing weren't the same. Some were strangled, some were stabbed, some were beaten.

Even now, suspicions persist that more than one killer was involved — or that DeSalvo was not involved.

But, at the time, apparently there was a widespread belief that the killings were the work of one man. The justice system — and then Hollywood — encouraged that conclusion.

In telling the story, the movie utilized a split–screen technique that was popular at the time — and continues to be used today.

It is a technique that can be easily misused or overused, but sometimes it can be effective, which was what I thought of its use in this movie.

The story was that DeSalvo had a split personality — the homicidal one and the devoted family man. Neither, apparently, was aware of the other's existence, and the split–screen technique was probably the best way to illustrate that.

It was also a powerful method for showing the growing fear and tension in the city.

Forty–five years after its debut, it remains a potent drama, but I urge first–time viewers to watch it with more than a grain of salt. Legally, the case of the Boston Strangler may be closed — or practically closed — but there are probably as many issues surrounding whether DeSalvo acted alone — or whether he was even involved at all — as there are with Lee Harvey Oswald.