Writer/director Matt Ruskin explores the infamous Boston area stranglings of the early 1960s, and the investigations, publicity, conspiracy theories, and introspection that accompanied them using the contemporary lens of a true crime investigation led by female journalists. Sometimes referred to as the "Silk Stocking Murders" or the Albert DeSalvo killings, the “Boston Strangler” case came to be known by that name because of a 1963 article by two investigative reporters for the Boston Record American, Jean Cole and Loretta McLaughlin. By the end, thirteen murders were attributed to DeSalvo based on his confession, and by DNA evidence that years later linked him to the final victim. DeSalvo was imprisoned for life for committing a series of rapes, but his controversial murder confession has been disputed by many who speculate that the killings were committed by more than one individual.
The excellent 1968 take on this story—directed by the great Richard Fleischer from a screenplay by former journalist Edward Anhalt based on Gerold Frank’s 1966 fictionalize novel—was made when the case was fresh in the minds of the country and especially in the city of Boston. That film centered on the failed investigations conducted by the Boston police and how a character named John S. Bottomly (Henry Fonda) is appointed by the Massachusetts attorney general to get to the bottom of the killings terrifying his city. When the sharp and resourceful Bottomly fails to find the right man, the movie’s focus switches to the perspective of Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis playing against type). The movie shrewdly introduced filmgoers to the concept of a real-life serial killer so inscrutable and uncatchable that he is a mystery even to himself. Fleischer's expert use of the late-‘60s trend of animated split screens (also popularized by John Frankenheimer in the 1966 picture Grand Prix and Norman Jewison in this same year’s The Thomas Crown Affair) mirrors the split personality of DeSalvo in that telling.
Ruskin, a native of the greater Boston city of Watertown, tells a far more straightforward version of the story, from the point of view of the two reporters who coined the titular moniker. Keira Knightley plays Loretta McLaughlin as a bored society columnist who dreams of getting to write real stories by is prevented by her sexist workplace and unsympathetic boss. When she’s able to break the Strangler story by piecing together clues the corrupt cops and lazy beat reporters failed to connect, she gets partnered up with veteran lady-journalist Jean Cole. Carrie Coon relishes the cynical take on Cole as much as Knightley leans into the way McLaughlin is written as a feisty, bookish, smart cookie underestimated at every turn because of how softspoken and attractive she is. The uneasy comradery between these two is the best aspect of the picture. Both women must navigate a hostile workplace, family issues, and a society that doesn’t approve of dames doing this type of hard-nosed work.
If that all sounds like a bag of clichés, it is. The script follows a well-established template, and the cinematography blatantly mimics the cold, dark style of David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac. (Indeed, a great deal of this film pays direct homage to Zodiac—still the greatest film about investigative journalism since All the President's Men). However, all this homage and procedural formula plays far less hackneyed than one might expect. Despite already knowing much about the history of this case (or maybe because of that), I found myself getting sucked into the way Ruskin appropriates facts, tropes, and styles to serve his fictionalized narrative and themes. There’s a reason the popularity of the true-crime genre has lasted so long: it’s always exciting to watch competent people solve “unsolvable” mysteries, and it’s equally enjoyable to watch other characters poke holes in their seemingly rock-solid theories. Armchair sleuthing never gets old and, when a new film goes back and reexamines an old case with a modern sensibility, it can be fascinating to observe how the emphasis gets changed over time. All true crime stories end up as Rashomon, even when they don’t set out to.
Watertown's own Matt Ruskin explores the infamous series of early 1960s killings and the investigations, publicity, and conspiracy theories that accompanied them through the contemporary lens of a true crime investigation led by female journalists.