10 Rillington Place (1971)
That Richard Attenborough’s killer in 10 Rillington Place is a monster is not the point. Within the first ten minutes we watch him play “doctor” by gassing a woman, violating, then murdering her. No, the real shocker in this true crime expose is how well the serial murderer manipulates events and people to remain above suspicion.
It’s 1944, the height of the war in Europe and John Christie, an innocent enough neighborhood watch volunteer in a London suburb has convinced a woman who suffers from asthma to come to his claustrophobic flat and take a “home remedy.” Skillful at calming her down, he has her put a makeshift mask over her face with an attached tube that leads through a glass jar and into a gas faucet. Just as she is losing consciousness she struggles, but he overpowers her and has his way, finishing up by burying her in the backyard. This is all played out in a very cold, documentary style.
It’s now 5 years later and Christie, married and living on the bottom flat of a three story building, is showing the top floor to a young couple with a baby. His manner is quiet, unassuming and a tad “unsettling.” The husband, Tim Evans, a frightfully young John Hurt, is a gadabout, constantly telling tall-tales and lies. Flash forward and the couple, now living in the flat, are very tight on money. Evans needs Christie to read his mail to him; he’s illiterate. With bills due, we discover after a huge row between Evans and his wife Beryl, that she is pregnant. Christie, insinuating himself, explains that with his past “experience” in medicine, he can perform an abortion for free. Shockingly, the couple agrees, and Evans walks to work.
Even though we can see where this is going, the slow and methodical steps to get us to Beryl’s death are pulse-pounding. But the greatest scene, when Christie has to explain to Evans how his wife died from complications of the abortion, turning the tables so it is Evans who would be found guilty of murder, motivating him to flee out of town, leaving his dead wife and baby to Christie is mind-blowing; especially since the entire affair is from actual court documents.
Attenborough, having recently moved from acting to directing, took on the role because it was such a landmark case in England. He embraces the role so wholeheartedly to become Christie, that he expertly finds ways to make the character somewhat sympathetic, a Herculean feat.
10 Rillington Place reminded me of the recent true-life shocker Compliance (2012), where a fast food restaurant manager does everything a voice on the telephone, claiming to be a policeman, tells her to do. Both examine how people who exude an air of authority can so easily manipulate others. And both these films would never have worked so brilliantly if they weren’t based in fact; they would be too unbelievable.
John Hurt’s Evans is so complacent and embarrassed by his own illiteracy and ignorance of the ways of the world, that he argues his way right into the hangman’s noose. The real life fallout from this mistaken execution turned the tide on British capital punishment. In fact, the conservative movement in Parliament was on the threshold of overturning Britain’s rejection of executions, when the film opened in 1971 and sealed the fate for capital punishment in the country for good, one of those rare examples of art having a profound and politically effective impact on public opinion and the law.
Richard Fleischer, a chameleon in his own right, was one of the most adaptable film directors in history, ably suited to half a dozen genres. From his groundbreaking noir The Narrow Margin (1952), to the family films 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Dr. Doolittle (1967) to sci-fi actioners like Soylent Green (1973), his style fit the projects, not the other way around. And his style for 10 Rillington Place was docu-drama.
Striving for authenticity, production tried to shoot on the actual location, but the current residents balked, so Fleischer set up camp and shot in the building next door, 7 Rillington Place.
The results are incredibly effective. The film packs a punch as viscerally today as it must have in 1971. The subject matter, which could easily fall into exploitative salaciousness, instead takes a very sober and realistic tone, similar to Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood (1967).
How pervasive the serial killer’s crimes were, and the realistic and unsensational way he was ultimately captured, are so subtly rendered, that its “fact is stranger than fiction” themes will resonate with you long after the credits roll. 10 Rillington Place a powerful and timeless piece of moviemaking, demanding greater attention today than it has gotten in years.