The Strangler directed by Bart Topper
I might be giving away my age here, but I am old enough to remember, young although I was at the time, the panic and news stories that were attendant during the scourge of the so-called Boston Strangler. Between June 1962 and January ’64, no fewer than 13 women, ages 19 all the way up to 85, were slain and, in some cases, sexually molested by the mad fiend. Finally, in October ’64, that fiend was apprehended and later confessed; a 33-year-old named Albert de Salvo. The incidents that shocked Beantown and the rest of the country would later be turned into a film, October 1968’s The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis as de Salvo. But that had not been the only film inspired by the dreadful doings. In April ’64, a half year before de Salvo’s arrest and at the height of the Boston panic, another film was released that perfectly captured the unease of the period. That film was simply called The Strangler, and a recent watch has reinforced for this viewer what a marvelous entertainment it remains, now more than a half century after its premiere.
The Strangler opens with a scene guaranteed to bring to mind the opening sequence in the great 1946 shocker The Spiral Staircase, as the viewer looks deep into the eyes of a madman as he is gazing at a lovely young woman. In this case, those eyes belong to obese, 30ish-year-old Leo Kroll (Victor Buono), who, when we first encounter him, not only glares at said lovely, but also leaps from concealment in her apartment and throttles her to death, after which he caresses and undresses a child’s toy doll in orgasmic release. Kroll, we later learn, has a desk full of naked dolls in his drawer at home, one for each of his previous killings (sexual transference fetishes, as a police psychiatrist later explains), and the young lady whom he has just murdered had been his eighth recent victim! The cops on the case in this never-identified city are mystified, although Lt. Frank Benson (David McLean) quite correctly calls Kroll in for questioning; the latest victim, it seems, used to work as a nurse at the hospital where Kroll is currently employed as a lab technician. Kroll, we also soon learn, is the only child of an invalid mother (Ellen Corby, who had been appearing in films since the early ‘30s and who would go on to great fame playing TV’s Grandma Walton eight years later), whom he reluctantly visits in hospital whenever he can, although that mother is something of a monster who constantly henpecks, nags, badgers and berates her son. But when all is said and done, Kroll will go on to kill no fewer than four more times, before his reign of terror is brought to an abrupt end….
The Strangler, finely shot in B&W by DOP Jacques Marquette and directed in a clean, no-nonsense manner by Burt Topper, contains any number of fine sequences, those murder scenes being some of the standouts, of course. Kroll’s second victim whose slaying we are privy to is the nurse, Clara Thomas (Jeanne Bates), who had previously saved his mother’s life, thus extending Mrs. Kroll’s miserable treatment of her pitiful son; the third is an indirect but deliberate murder, as he tells his mother that her beloved nurse has been slain, thus engendering a fatal heart attack; the fourth is of a pretty arcade worker at the Odeon Fun Palace, Barbara (Diane Sayer), who the cops had been interrogating, concerning the dolls that the arcade routinely gives away as prizes; and the fifth murder, which might only be an attempted murder, is that of the blonde arcade worker, Tally (Davey Davison), who Kroll has pitifully fallen in love with. (Unlike de Salvo, Kroll does not sexually molest his victims whatsoever; the mere act of murder seems to satisfy his lusts quite nicely, thank you.)
All these scenes are suspensefully captured by director Topper and really are well done. But for this viewer, the picture’s absolute standout scene is the one in which Kroll is harangued by his dreadful termagant of a mother. Is it any wonder why Kroll has turned out to be the twisted, sociopathic wreck of a man that he is? Just get a load of what his mother tells him from her hospital bed: “…You’re not good-looking, you’re fat; you know very well yourself that some people think you’re funny … even as a little boy nobody liked you … and except for me, nobody’s loved you … and you haven’t any money, and women want money and don’t you forget it. Why, you barely make enough of a salary to keep a good-looking hussy in stockings….” And on and on and on. Not since Norman Bates, possibly, in Alfred Hitchcock’s game changer Psycho (1960), had audiences been treated to the spectacle of a man turned into a murderous woman hater due to the abuse of a malignant mother. (A word of advice to all parents out there: Talking this way to your kids may very well result in a truly dangerous and twisted personality disorder!)
And speaking of which, Kroll, as shown in this film, truly is a split-personality schizophrenic of the very highest order. His split is so complete that he easily aces a lie detector test administered at police HQ, and after he is told of his mother’s death – a death, again, that he deliberately brought about – he alternately laughs and cries as he trashes his mother’s bedroom at home. But somehow, the viewer feels sympathy for this serial killer, especially inasmuch as we sense Kroll’s loneliness and frustration. And that sympathy is perhaps never greater as we watch the pitiful scene in which Leo proposes to Tally in the arcade, presenting her with his mother’s engagement ring … Tally, of course, being a woman who he barely knows but has secretly lusted after for many months. Buono is simply outstanding at making us feel sympathy for his poor character; his performance here is simply aces. The San Diego-born actor was just 26 when he made this film, but because of his imposing physique, already seemed decades older. He had recently enjoyed a breakthrough role of sorts, two years earlier, playing pianist Edwin Flagg in the legendary Bette Davis/Joan Crawford horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and had even received an Oscar nomination for his work therein; later in ’64, he would appear in another Davis horror outing, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and, starting in ’66, would play the role of King Tut in the Batman TV show, a role for which he is fondly remembered today by a generation of baby boomers. What a terrible loss when Buono passed away on the first day of 1982, at the age of 43; he might very well have gone on to become the Sydney Greenstreet of his era. Anyway, his performance here really makes this film something to cherish.
Add in a fine screenplay by Bill S. Ballinger (who had scripted one of this viewer’s favorite episodes of The Outer Limits, the one entitled “The Mice,” which had been released three months earlier), and some impressive art direction by the great Eugene Lourie (who had worked on the film classic Shock Corridor the previous year, and who would go on to add his considerable talents to The Naked Kiss and Crack in the World in the next), and you’ve got yourself a surprisingly efficient and gripping little suspenser. This film is a much smaller one than The Boston Strangler would be – that later picture featured a big-name cast, including Curtis, Henry Fonda, George Kennedy and Sally Kellerman, as well as a much larger budget and a largely fictionalized portrayal of the actual events of the case – but yet still has much to commend of itself to today’s viewer. As the film’s promotional poster declared, “Each of These Girls Suffer [shouldn’t that be “Suffers”?] the Most Frightful Crimes Known to the Human Mind,” and as is revealed, the mind of Leo Kroll is a very disturbing one indeed. This is a neo-noir suspenser that will long be remembered by any viewer who sits down in front of it, and is most definitely recommended….
How smart to leave the city unidentified, capitalizing on the national fear the Boston case stirred up.
And “Nobody will ever love you but me,” is something abusive parents and domestic partners say in real life. It’s chilling and authentic.
And Victor Buono!
Yes, this effective little chiller makes a lot of intelligent choices in its execution. And that scene with the mother is just so pitiful to watch….