Not every serial killer thriller movie with either a truth-based pre-awareness or the pedigree of a worldwide best-selling book gets it right, as this weekend’s disappointing opening of The Snowman (from the popular Jo Nesbø Harry Hole novel series) shows. A movie that did get it right when it opened 49 years ago this week is director Richard Fleischer’s unsettling, documentary-style The Boston Strangler (1968), adapting for the screen Gerold Frank’s detailed 1966 nonfiction chronicle of the investigation into the brutal sex-related murders of 13 women in the greater Boston area from June 1962 to January 1964 that resulted in the arrest of the ex-convict mechanic Albert DeSalvo. Fleischer had a hunch that handsome Hollywood leading man Tony Curtis would be an intriguing choice to play DeSalvo on screen. “But he said he didn’t want me playing DeSalvo looking the way I did; he wanted me to look more sinister,” Curtis recalled in his 2006 memoir American Prince (written with Peter Golenbock). “He said, ‘What can we do to make you look like Albert DeSalvo?’ I knew exactly what to do. Knowing what DeSalvo looked like, I got some putty and worked it into the bridge of my nose, so it looked broken. I mussed up my hair and put dark makeup around me eyes. Then, holding a camera at arm’s length from my body, I took photos of myself as though I was being booked in a police station: profile and front-facing. I sent the photos to Richard Fleischer, and he took them to Richard Zanuck, the producer, son of the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck. What Richard hadn’t told me was that Zanuck didn’t want me for the part. He had told Richard, ‘If he plays the role, as soon as Albert DeSalvo comes on the screen, everybody’s going to know he’s Tony Curtis.’ Richard put the photos on Zanuck’s desk, and he said, ‘There’s your Albert DeSalvo.’ ‘You’re right,’ Zanuck said. ‘Who is that?’ Richard said, ‘It’s Tony Curtis. Give him the part.’ And Zanuck did. It was the one film I made in 1968, and it was a quality picture.”
Curtis’s commitment went even further. He continued: “After I got the part, I went out and bought brown contact lenses to hide my blue eyes. I put on about 15 pounds, and I used ankle weights to change the way I walked. I wore a pea coat, a stocking cap, jeans and big, heavy boots. Up to that point I had mostly played the romantic love interest, but I knew there was no reason I couldn’t play a psychopath. My lack of self-confidence was focused mainly on what other people though about me; I had a pretty good sense of what I could do when it came to acting.” Real life also fueled his work; at that time, his marriage to Christine Kauffman was unraveling, and Curtis confessed, “I suppose my problems with Christine helped me in one sense, because I was able to take my rage and express it through the character of Albert DeSalvo.” His growing isolation at home gave his on-screen work a dangerous edge that cast a mesmerizing spell over the second half of the film, prior to which was pure crime procedural. Time’s reviewer responded to Curtis’s efforts: “Whatever the film’s shortcomings, Tony Curtis must be adjudged not guilt. In an atypically intelligent and subtle performance, he climbs inside DeSalvo and makes himself astonishingly at home. Curtis plays the ordinary Albert without his customary flip mannersims. And as the monster within the skin, he is something else. Under orders from some burning sector of his mind, he hysterically reenacts one killing by wrapping his hands around an imaginary girl’s windpipe. Hovering between pathos and terror, Curtis suddenly makes the viewer’s breath stop in his own throat.” Working within, yet just outside, a stellar acting ensemble (Henry Fonda, George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Hurd Hatfield, Murray Hamilton, Jeff Corey, Sally Kellerman, William Marshall, Leora Dana, Richard X. Slattery, Dana Elcar, James Brolin and William Hickey), Curtis achieved a career high by looking into his personal depths in The Boston Strangler, which still haunts and surprises on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.