The Strangler, 1964. 9/10

Fascinating character study, loosely based on the actual Boston Strangler. Victor Buono’s killer, Leo, is absolutely convincing as a psychopath. It’s fitting that Leo dominates the screen–the movie is about him. The supporting cast generally give good performances, particularly Ellen Corby as Leo’s domineering mother.

His victims are realistically unique: Diane Water’s Barbara is flirty, and a bit ditzy, Tally (Davey Davison) is pretty much her friend’s quiet and careful opposite. The two police detectives, David McLean’s Lieutenant Benson and Sergeant Posner (Baynes Barron) give very authentic portrayals. All of the scenes at the police station crackle with intensity and genuine emotion, with much more nuance and personality than we usually get in crime movies.

Corby, given a very difficult role, is mesmerizing as Mrs. Kroll. The way she shifts from neediness to dismissiveness, sometimes in the same sentence, with just a facial gesture or two, shreds Leo’s self-esteem. He’s absolutely crucial to his mom, and, simultaneously, completely useless. Leo’s one act of independence is pretty clever. Knowing that news of her nurse’s death (one of his recent victims) destroys the one relationship that gives her comfort, he relishes his opportunity to tell her that the nurse is dead.

Although not technically a murder–the news kills her. Ironically, this is the only death with a tangible motive. Some of the women that he deliberately kills he actually likes. It’s painful to watch him interact with Tally and Barbara; he just can’t deal with women socially. On the other hand, he puts on a haughty mask with his co-worker Thelma (Mimi Dillard). He’s spending the whole movie looking either anxious or smug, in subconscious emulation, perhaps, of his mother’s mood swings.

The last part of the movie, beginning with his pathetic ‘proposal’ to Tally, picks up the sometimes slow pace, and ends up in the noir-like sequence up and down the shadowy staircases and corridors of his hotel. The last scene, leaving him crunched on the pavement, with one of his dolls just out of reach, is a final humiliation.

A problem I have with The Strangler is logistical: how does he find out where all of his victims live? Even when most people had their names in a phone book, the addresses could be left out, and first names could be disguised with initials. That’s even assuming he would know their last names–very unlikely with Tally and Barbara.

The other quibble would be with the psychologist who explains schizophrenia to the Lieutenant. I think he’s really talking about split personality, ala Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, not the dissociative state that describes Leo’s condition. Leo doesn’t switch personalities, rather he can’t control his actions when triggered by social phobias (he fears dealing with women).

Other than a couple of miscues, this is a compelling look at a desperate, downward-spiralling, doomed man. Not to be missed for those interested in psychological crime dramas.

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