Friday, May 19, 2017

The Strangler (1964) Serial Killer Noir

Victor Buono was a real piece of work. I first remember him from his many turns as a TV heavy, and I mean that literally, from Perry Mason, Batman, 77 Sunset Strip, to his recurring turn as Count Carlos Manzeppi in The Wild Wild West. He always struck me as genuinely creepy, a bit off, a bit eccentric, not quite normal. Maybe it was his eyes, his insincere smile, and cherubic paedomorphic face sticking out almost pustule like from an obese rotundity of a body. Think of all the abhorrence you'd experience upon finding a blood engorged tick in some nether region of your body and you'll get an idea of his effect in a performance.

His notable film roles were What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), The Silencers (1966), and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), but it really was TV where he really made his lasting mark.

Directed by Burt Topper with a screenplay by Bill S. Ballinger  (Wicked as They Come (1956), Pushover (1954)). The film was inspired by the notorious Boston Strangler, a serial killer of the 1960s and of course Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) . The cinematography was by Jacques R. Marquette (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)), and the music was by Marlin Skiles (Music Department for Gilda (1946), Framed (1947) Sudden Danger (1955)).

Title sequence art

Leo Kroll (Buono)
Mother Corby (Ellen Corby)
David McLean (Lt. Frank Benson)
Tally Raymond (Davey Davison) as Leo's heartthrob 
Besides Buono the film stars David McLean (X-15 (1961), Nevada Smith (1966)) as Lt. Frank Benson, the detective in charge of investigations. Veteran character actress Ellen Corby (Vertigo (1958) and best known as Grandma Walton in The Waltons) played Mrs. Kroll, Jeanne Bates (Vice Raid (1960), Mulholland Drive (2001)) was Clara Thomas, an attending nurse.  Davey Davison (Route 66 TV Series (1960–1964)) as Tally Raymond, the female lead, and Diane Sayer (Kitten with a Whip (1964)) as Barbara Wells, Tally's colleague at the arcade ring toss. Baynes Barron (The Big Combo (1955)) played Sgt. Mack Clyde, Russ Bender (I Bury the Living (1958)) was Dr. Clarence Sanford and Wally Campo (The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Shock Corridor (1963)) played Eggerton.

Opening Sequence

Leo Kroll (Buono), is a mama's boy who absolutely hates his nagging domineering mother (Corby). Leo has got a serious schoolboy crush on the Odeon Fun Palace arcade ring toss gal Tally (Raymond). He spends his days working as a mild mannered lab tech and most of his nights (when he can't get away to the arcade) at his mother's Park View Hospital bedside. Leo murders nurses (because they keep his mother alive) and collects dolls which he uses as sort of trophy tchotchkes for each of his kills. His usual m.o. is to follow his targets home, break into their apartments and strangle them from behind with their own nylon stockings. He then composes their bodies into a restful pose.

When Leo gets back to his house, he takes the doll he carries (which somewhat looks like his latest victim) out of his pocket and undresses her. The doll (something along the lines of a Barbie Doll) even has nylon stockings which Leo removes one one by one. When the doll is naked Leo places it in a locked desk drawer along with the others he has collected.

At the start of the film we are well into Leo's serial murder spree. He's been questioned by police in the course of their routine dragnet investigations because of his lab work connections to the various hospitals. His mother suffers from yet another heart attack and is saved by the quick actions of nurse Clara (Bates). When Leo hears from his mother all the praise she bestows upon Carla he positively seethes with resentment. Carla becomes his next victim. However the circumstances of this kill are different. He follows Carla home he knocks on her door and after he is let in (since she knows him as her patient's son) strangles her to death in a struggle with his bare hands. Leo panting looks like he's ecstatically climaxing in his pants. During the struggle a baby doll was knocked from a shelf falling to the floor.  Leo picks up the doll and flings it angrily against the wall and then runs from the apartment.

The climax
Leo's mother's doctor tells him not to mention the murder of Carla to his mother. The shock might kill her. Of course Leo gleefully does so, inducing another heart attack which kills her.

"Guess what I did?"

Adios mother
Because of Carla's connection to his mother Leo is again pulled in for questioning. He passes the lie detector test though, and is again released. Leo goes back to the arcade where he sees Barbara (Sayer), Tally's co-worker, talking to the fuzz. Kroll tails her back to her flat, uses a screwdriver to turn her window latch, pushes the window up, and steps into her apartment. He strangles her as she is coming out of the shower with her own stocking.

talking to a cop
  Barbara Wells (Diane Sayer) 

Of course this aberration in the m.o. at first throws the police off. With His mother now dead Leo finds his aversion to women abating. He approaches Tally and proposes to her cold turkey. She rejects him. Leo now believes everything his mother told him about the evils of women. This sends Leo into a death spiral towards Noirsville.


ah the perfect mate....

Marry you?

proposal rejection

tail fins

Buono is excellent as the strangler, he's always halfway there in his looks alone, his performance completes the effect. Ellen Corby is nicely irritating as mother. The rest of the cast is adequate in their various functions putting in good showings, but it's Buono's film.

Burt Topper and cinematographer Jacques R. Marquette display a bit of style, one shot at the beginning of the film is from the POV of the peeping Leo, we see a woman victim undressing through the pupil of his eye, and then not a whole lot else at that level that quite approaches the first six minutes. Too bad, it was a promising start, this film could have used a lot more of the same. Strange Compulsion (1964) did the noir stylistics infinitely better. Had The Strangler gone a bit more into the sexploitation route as Strange Compulsion with the strength of Buono's performance it would be much better regarded. As is it's about a 7/10.

One more concluding observation, the film prominently displays almost everyone either sucking on tar bars (one shot lingers on an office smoke stand another shows a cigarette machine in the squad room), or curiously drinking milk from rectangular containers. It must have been some product placement deal, lol.

These screencaps are from the Sinister Cinema DVD, there is also a Warner's release available with hopefully a better restoration. It would be worth checking out.

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