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The Strangler

Posted by martinteller on September 11, 2013

Leo Kroll (Victor Buono) is burdened with an invalid, overbearing mother (Ellen Corby).  He has a crush on Tally (Davey Davison), the girl who runs the ring toss game, but feels his mother’s oppressive shadow looming over him.  He relieves his stress by strangling the women of the city, leaving toy dolls in his wake.  As Lt. Frank Benson (David McLean) as his associates try to discover the true identity of “The Strangler”, the body count rises.

A “ripped from the headlines” serial killer flick, clearly inspired by the then-recent exploits of “The Boston Strangler”, Albert DiSalvo.  There’s also an obvious Hitchcock influence at work.  Besides the blatant similarities to Psycho, there are several flashy shots that reveal the artistic ambitions of director Burt Topper (whose previous efforts were three war films and the enticingly titled The Diary of a High School Bride).  The opening shot consists of a victim reflected in the eye of the killer, and a few minutes later there’s an odd “tape measure’s eye view” shot.  In general, these flourishes give the film some visual flair, but occasionally they get a little too showy.

The production code was relaxing quite a bit by 1964, as evidenced by the multiple shots of women in their underwear, overt references to rape, and the clear implication that Kroll experiences orgasm with every kill.  But some elements still show their age, for instance when a cop refers to one of the victims as a “respectable girl, no tramp”.  In other words, she wasn’t asking for it.

As with most movies of this ilk — think He Walked By Night or Without Warning — the film is most riveting when the killer is onscreen.  Buono is an actor who has intrigued me since seeing his offbeat appearance in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.  Something like a less forlorn Laird Cregar, he has an imposing, hulking physical presence but one that belies a gentle vulnerability.  Buono commands the screen not just with his impressive mass, but also his nuanced shifts in mood, unable to contain the beast within.

Which leaves the police procedural portions of the film, which are typically staid and routine.  The false leads, the near misses, the standard psychiatrist speech, the sketch artist, the forensic work, the sudden revelation.  Truth be told, I enjoy a procedural so the familiarity of these elements is more comforting than tiresome to me, but there’s not much exciting in the policework, nor the cop performances.  Likewise, Davison gets an “introducing” credit but fails to make any impression at all.  She would quickly return to a career consisting mostly of bit parts on television.

But Buono is fantastic, and Corby lays it on gloriously thick as the unbearable mother.  Also notable is Diane Sayer as Davison’s partner at the ring toss booth.  She’s got a magnetic sassiness to her… but her career never went anywhere either.

The film moves along at a decent pace, and there’s some enjoyable creepiness to be seen.  Rating: Good (74)


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