The story of the infamous serial-killer case nicknamed the Boston Strangler involved 13 sexual assaults and murders in the Boston area between 1962 and 1964. Officially, 12 of them have never been solved. The 13th, decades later, was proven through DNA techniques to be the chief suspect, and self-confessed “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo. He was famously represented by F. Lee Bailey, who later would write a book about the case.
The fact that there were, and still are, so many questions about it all did not deter Hollywood and others from exploiting the case to various degrees — most famously in the 1968 20th Century Fox drama The Boston Strangler starring Tony Curtis as DeSalvo and Henry Fonda as a lead detective. Curtis waged a significant Oscar campaign for the role he fought to get but was overlooked even after getting a Golden Globe nomination for it. A 1964 movie called The Strangler with Victor Buono was “inspired” by the sensationalized events, and there also was a 1968 William Goldman book and subsequent movie with Rod Steiger, No Way to Treat a Lady, clearly inspired by the case. Since then it has been rehashed in many ways, but none like the new Hulu film from 20th Century Studios, Boston Strangler, smartly leaving off The in its title because, as you will discover in this smart and totally compelling film, the upshot is that we can’t say for sure there is a The Boston Strangler at all.
So this film actually has much more in common with a journalistic story than one strictly about the crime. And even though it takes place 60 years ago, its focus is squarely on the two female newspaper reporters who were at the center of the story, several steps ahead of the all-male detectives and rival male reporters. With two compassionate women determined to get the truth out about the brutal murders of other women, this case takes a much different, and still very relevant, bent on the tale. It says it is “inspired” by the actual case (some liberties with timing have been taken), but I would alter the word to say inspiring.
This film is more in line with She Said, the recent pic about the work of two female New York Times reporters in the pursuit of the Harvey Weinstein rape cases. Boston Strangler delves directly into the lives of Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), the two Record-American staff reporters who teamed to reveal the true facts and unasked questions, an angle completely ignored in Fox’s 1968 version (ironically the studio seems to be making up for the shortcomings of that movie with this one). It was McLaughlin, then a lifestyle writer who became intrigued by local reports of multiple women being murdered in much the same style. Unable to get her editor Jack (Chris Cooper) interested, she set out on her own research mission. “These are nobodies,” he told her. “And who do you think our readers are?” she replied.
Soon the lesser-regarded paper scooped the story thanks to her, but it goes south as the cops complain and tell Jack the paper is going to be very embarrassed when they find out there is no proven connection. With more stranglings occurring, however, Jack assigns Jean, the top woman investigative reporter that they have, to join Loretta on the beat. Like She Said, writer-director Matt Ruskin’s script mostly details their dogged pursuit of the truth but also the effect on their personal lives and marriages. Ironically the husbands in this instance — James (Morgan Spector), who is married to Loretta, and Jean’s hubby (Stephen Thorne) — are relegated to the kinds of brief home-life scenes usually reserved for wives in past Hollywood movies, the supportive but frustrated spouse waiting for their significant other to stop working and just come home.
The twists and turns of the case uncovered by their teamwork reveal the inherent problems of the police, the key male detectives and even the media, which finally gave a name to it all and got lots of attention labeling it “Boston Strangler.” But as this movie — with Ruskin’s own impressive detective work — shows, it might not be what all these players conveniently want it to be, and in fact shows there were others who also might have been responsible by using the publicity of the so-called Boston Strangler to cover up their own crimes.
That Loretta and Jean were compassionate women out to do right for the victims gives this crime saga a very poignant edge, even as a cringy headline in their own paper touts the effects of their stories by calling them “girls.” Arrrrrgh. Knightley, understated and determined, is at her best here, as is Coon as the more experienced investigative reporter she is forced to team up with. Cooper, the grizzled editor who finally gives in to the emerging facts and the reporters he has delivering them, is terrific.
There is also a fine supporting cast of mostly men (the actual victim stories and violent attacks, unlike other tellings, are kept to a minimum), with Bill Camp as the sexist and in-denial Police Commissioner, Rory Cochrane and James Ciccone as other detectives and a briefly-used David Dastmalchian as DeSalvo and Luke Kirby as Bailey. Very fine Is Alessandro Nivola as a rather tired key homicide detective on the case who reluctantly shares his stored-away evidence and DeSalvo’s taped confession with Loretta after she confronts him on his role as consultant on a movie set — it’s not explicitly stated as 1968’s The Boston Strangler — filming a scene where the actor playing him elicits the confession. A clever touch, here. “So are you just looking to cash in?,” Loretta asks while guilting him into doing the right thing.
This is one of those movies that finds a fresh way into an age-old story you might think you already knew but clearly didn’t. Bravo.
Producers for Scott Free are Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Micheal Pruss, Josey McNamara and Tom Ackerley. It begins streaming Friday on Hulu.
Title: Boston Strangler
Director-Screenwriter: Matt Ruskin
Cast: Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Chris Cooper, Morgan Spector, Bill Camp, Robert James Burke, Alessandro Nivola, David Dastmalchian, Luke Kirby, Rory Cochrane, James Ciccone, Stephen Thorne
Running time: 112 minutes