What a ghastly little cretin lives on the ground floor of 10 Rillington Place. Short, fat, and balding, the little round spectacles complete the mousey persona of John Christie, one of the most notorious post-World War Two serial killers in Great Britain. His voice seldom rises above a breathy whisper as he offers cups of tea and fake medical advice to the victims he lures into his flat. Played by Richard Attenborough he is a marvel of wormy repugnance. He is the quiet revelation in Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place, a film which charts his murders and relationship with Tim and Beryl Evans (John Hurt, Judy Geeson), a couple who moved into the tenement above him and became two of his most infamous victims.
After learning Beryl was unhappily pregnant with a second child they couldn’t afford, he offered to perform a backroom abortion. So on a day when Tim was at work and the flat was empty, he drugged her with carbon monoxide gas, raped her, and strangled her with a rope. Later that night he would also strangle her infant daughter after being awoken by her crying. His brilliant framing of Tim for their murders would lead to one of the prominent miscarriages of justice in British history: his conviction and execution.
When Christie was caught years later, the outcry over Tim’s death was instrumental in the United Kingdom’s abolition of capital punishment in 1965. It was this knowledge that convinced Attenborough to take the role in the first place: “I do not like playing the part, but I accepted it at once without seeing the script. I have never felt so totally involved in any part as this. It is a most devastating statement on capital punishment.
Attenborough’s conviction reveals one of the film’s true failings: it can’t reconcile its exposé on the British justice system which dominates the last third of the film and its lurid reenactments of Christie’s crimes. For most of the film Fleischer turns a documentarian’s camera at the minutiae of Christie’s killings—the rituals of gathering the murder materials, the preparation of a cup of tea with milk, the gassing of his victims, the careful disposal of their bodies.
But Fleischer’s camera is far from objective during the actual killings; he uses tight camera angles to make them visceral and intimate. Is he trying to titillate and thrill the audience? By the time the film exhorts the police investigators who bungled the murder investigations (how did they not find the bodies buried in the garden!) the court system which railroaded an illiterate and “simpleminded” man, and the laws which led to his hanging, we aren’t sure what it’s trying to accomplish.
There is much to admire about 10 Rillington Place. Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray release really captures the dreariness and dread of postwar London as evoked by Denys Coop’s understated cinematography. Hurt, more physically wiry than ever before, shines as the unstable Tim, a man prone to both paroxysms of violence and episodes of emotional catatonia. And, of course, there is Attenborough’s transformation into Christie, as vivid an onscreen monster as any of the serial killers who stalked the post-Psycho cinematic landscape. It’s unfortunate that all this was trapped in such a confused, conflicted film.