FROM THE CURIOSITY DESK
8:11 am
Tue July 16, 2013

'Boston Strangler' Case Magnified, Distorted in Pop Culture

Actor Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo

Why has it been so important to solve the 50-year-old case of the Boston Strangler? For the families of the Strangler’s 11 victims the answer is obvious.

Mary Sullivan was the last of the Strangler’s victims. Her nephew, Casey Sherman, spoke at a press conference last week about closure in this case based on the new DNA information.

"Closure is coming for my mother, who was 17 when Mary was killed," he said.

But the newly discovered DNA match connecting Albert DeSalvo definitively to the murder of Mary Sullivan does not close the case on the Boston Strangler because now 10 or as many as 12 cases remain. Any unsolved homicide lingers in the public imagination like a cold you can’t shake. And unsolved serial killings grip the imagination and stir public fears in ways far more profound. And when unsolved serial killings are left to Hollywood, fiction writers, and documentarians to figure out, the results are more often than not sensationalist or unintentionally comical.

The 1968 cinematic interpretation of "The Boston Strangler," starring Tony Curtis, was both.

"Preview audiences have acclaimed this a remarkable motion picture, Academy-Award stature," the film's trailer says. "For the indelible quality of this film is that the tension, the suspense, the emotion mount when the camera goes beyond the panic-stricken streets of Boston, beyond the dark corridors of the apartment houses where the Strangler silently prowls, beyond the bedrooms of lonely, fearful women into the forbidden corners of a man's mind and soul."

Once you get past the histrionic narration in this 1968 trailer you find yourself in a movie that purports to be true to life and poses as a nuanced examination of the Boston Strangler.

"I want you to coordinate the investigation with the commonwealth; set up a Strangler bureau," says actor William Marshall, in his deep baritone, channeling former Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke.

"I’m not even remotely qualified for this kind of thing," replies Henry Fonda as John Bottomly, the chief detective who got Albert DeSalvo's to say “I did it.”

"You want the stranglings to go on?" Marshall asks.

"That’s not fair," Fonda replies.

Tony Curtis plays DeSalvo.

"I don't know," Curtis says as DeSalvo. "Her blouse came off in my hand."

"Albert now, now is the time," Fonda replies. "Go back."

The 1968 movie "The Boston Strangler" was panned mercilessly.

"This is essentially a work of fiction 'based' on the real events, I believe," wrote critic Roger Ebert. "This film, which was made so well, should not have been made at all."

"It is as though someone had gone out to do a serious piece of reporting and came up with 4,000 clippings from a sensationalist tabloid," wrote New York Times York Times critic Renata Adler. "It has no depth, no timing, no facts of any interest, and yet, without any hesitation, it uses the name and pretends to report the story of a living man, who was neither convicted nor indicted for the crimes it ascribes to him."

The prurient implications of this question weighed on the public’s imagination for years, but DeSalvo’s guilt or innocence despite his confession posed the larger question for filmmakers, and thus the more salient mystery of the Boston Strangler.

Not surprisingly, the subject matter was heavily sensationalized: The Boston Strangler was a ready made topic for high TV ratings as this well-watched documentary on the Biography Channel proved.

"Boston, 1962," the narrator said. "On the verge of an encounter with one of the most feared and elusive serial killers in American history: The Boston Strangler."

"People said it was as if Jack the Ripper had come back from the dead to stalk Boston."

Season 13, Episode 15 of the Unsolved Mysteries cable TV series proved to be one of the most popular ever. While sensationalist, it also probed deeper into the mystery rather than simply recite the most prurient elements of the case.

"The words of Albert DeSalvo are all that connect him to the unproven belief that he is the Boston Strangler … " the narrator says.

The exhumations of DeSalvo and Sullivan in 2001 were important developments that led to the most recent break in the case. And the Unsolved Mysteries TV documentary kept this decades long story alive. Sensationalism around the case amplified in popular media is now what Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley says officials hope to put to rest with the latest exhumation of DeSalvo’s remains.

"Now, in most people's eyes, Albert DeSalvo has been known as the Boston Strangler," Coakley said. "But without direct evidence linking him, questions, and legitimate questions, have lingered about that perpetrator. And people have sought to answer them. And now with the incredible advances in DNA testing just over the past decade, we've now been able to confirm this familial match. One last step remains, to make a direct match from Albert DeSalvo's body."

Of course the fact that as many as 12 other murders between 1962 and 1964 have not been solved conclusively still leaves the Boston Strangler case open to the imagination. Since the 1960s the strangler has been the subject of a "Law and Order" segment, various studies probing violence against women, numerous books of fiction, documentaries, and movies, including a 2008 remake starring David Faustino.

And the Boston Strangler case is not just an American obsession. The same movie was dubbed into many languages, including German.

And now, actor Casey Affleck is reportedly set to star in and produce the latest movie about the search for the Boston Strangler. Like the most mysterious of unsolved murder mysteries, the identity of Jack the Ripper of London, the Boston Strangler will continue to spawn movies, documentaries and speculation that likely will not be appeased by the miracle of science.