Not all American films treat stories involving sexually-driven homicide with salacious intent. Mark Fraser looks back at a work where both the crime and its punishment are approached with the same degree of restrained respect.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
If the movies tell us anything about historic serial killers it’s that – outside of their murderous sprees – they seem to lead rather unremarkable lives.
Certainly this is the case with Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place (1971), in which a creepy Richard Attenborough plays British multiple murderer John “Reg” Christie (1899-1953), whose quiet reign of terror in London during the 1940s and early 1950s ended in the death of at least eight female victims.
As portrayed by Attenborough, Christie is as innocuous as they come – a dull and reclusive nobody who happens to have a ruthlessly cunning manipulative streak, particularly when it comes to honing in on people who show signs of ignorance, weakness or vulnerability.
He’s also an accomplished liar and is undeniably sordid, harbouring a deadly sexual hang up which, it transpires, pretty much equates to closest necrophilia.
Needless to say, beneath his ordinarily condescending, pedantic and harmlessly uncomplicated working class exterior is one hell of a sick puppy.
The film starts with Christie’s murder of his second known victim – Muriel Eady (Phyllis MacMahon) – whom he knocks unconscious with carbon monoxide while “treating” her bronchitis before raping, strangling and eventually burying her (next to his official first kill – Ruth Fuerst) in the cramped back yard of the titular address (a shabby multi-storey flat in what was then London’s dirt poor suburb of Notting Hill) during October 1944.
Having quickly established their protagonist as the cowardly monster he truly is, Fleischer and his scriptwriter Clive Exton (who adapted the screenplay from Ludovic Kennedy’s book Ten Rillington Place) fast track the story to what it is ultimately about – that being how a tragic miscarriage of justice in the British legal system during the mid-20th Century helped bring down capital punishment in England.
In doing so, the pair also “explore the boundless and intimitable weirdness of reality” (Coursodon and Sauvage, 1983), making 10 Rillington Place possibly one of the most unsensational, yet detailed, movies about a serial killer ever made.
Tragedy in waiting
Following the 1944 night time murder of Eady, the film cuts to five years later when Timothy Evans (John Hurt), his wife Beryl (Judy Geeson) and their infant daughter Geraldine (Miss Riley) move into the two top floor rooms of Christie’s flat.
In what appears to be a reasonably short amount of time the killer finds out all he needs to know about the couple – Timothy is, like himself, a habitual liar and illiterate to boot; the young Mrs Evans stirs his loins when he watches her walk up the stairs, and the impoverished couple is in debt.
On discovering an expectant Beryl is trying to terminate her second pregnancy with the overuse of pills, Christie – who pretends he has some medical expertise – suggests he conduct a backyard abortion.
Although she embraces the idea, her not-to-smart husband has some reservations – that is until he too succumbs to the murderer’s lies about having “picked up this knowledge while I was training as a doctor before the war”.
The following day, after Timothy leaves for work, Christie sends his wife Ethel (Pat Heywood) on an errand, leaving him alone in the flat with Beryl. As he starts administering the gas-based “anesthetic”, she reacts violently, causing him to punch her unconscious before quickly raping and strangling her limp body. (Outside of the opening scene, these are the film’s only other truly violent moments.)
Upon discovering his wife’s death, a devastated Timothy is convinced by the killer to go into hiding while he disposes of her body and arranges for Geraldine to be temporarily taken care of by a childless couple in east Acton.
Instead Christie also strangles the baby and dumps the pair in the wash house (not down a street drain as planned), ultimately ensuring their corpses will be found by the police.
As a result the habitually lying Timothy is charged with his wife and daughter’s death after stupidly confessing to the crime while under emotional duress. In real life he was hung during 1952 for his family’s murder.
While 10 Rillington Place concludes as a piece of social commentary regarding the legitimacy of capital punishment (the UK judicial system abolished it in 1965 largely as a result of the Evans-Christie case), its narrative contains another message which is just as relevant when it comes to the debilitating nature of crime and how it can cripple peoples’ lives.
In their second volume of American Directors, critics Jean-Pierre Coursdon and Pierre Sauvage point out that one of the key themes emphasised by the film is gullibility – and in particular “what appears to be a sheer willingness to be deceived”.
Throughout the movie, from its murderous opening salvo to the final act when Christie, having disposed of his wife, manages to lure another victim (Norma Shebbeare) to his lair on the promise of medical assistance, it’s the truly impressionable who end up being the victims – people so desperate they fail to see the reality before them.
“No lie is blatant enough to alert Christie’s naïve victims, who blindly throw themselves into the most conspicuous traps,” Coursdon and Sauvage write.
“Were it not so doggedly factual, the film might join the ranks of such fantasies of organised extermination as Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949) or Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947), whose corrosive humour it occasionally brings to mind.”
Indeed, gullibility runs so rife in 10 Rillington Place that even Christie falls prey to his own sense of self-delusion, getting captured by the law after failing to properly dispose of his victims’ rotting bodies, presumably under the misguided impression they will never be found.
Meanwhile his wife Ethyl – who eventually ends up under the floorboards of the flat when she announces her plans to leave – also seems to be afflicted with some kind of desperate self-denial, effectively turning a blind eye to her husband’s murder of Beryl and Geraldine before watching him throw Timothy under a bus in court.
Moreover, it turns out the judiciary (including the jury) is also guilty of being gullible after letting Christie lie his way through his testimony at Evans’ trial despite knowing of his criminal history.
Fittingly, this serial killer finally received his just desserts when, on July 15, 1953, he was hung for the murder of his wife at Pentonville Prison – the same venue the innocent Evans met his fate some three years earlier.
Interestingly (and this is not covered by the movie) Christie pleaded insanity during his own trial, a notion rejected by the jurors. Finally, the pattern of gullibility which had caused so much grief was broken, albeit it belatedly.
By the time its final credits roll, 10 Rillington Place has ticked quite a few boxes.
Not only does the film provide a fascinating insight into the workings of a deranged killer (showing how, for over half a decade, he was able to get away with murder), but it proves there is nothing noble about modern poverty, portraying a society in which the poor (Christie is nothing more than a manipulative, under-educated working stiff who partly survives by acting as the landlord of a flat when he is merely its head tenant) prey upon the poor – be it for economic or sexual gratification. In this regard, the movie is not just an effective character study and period piece, but also an interesting critique on class dysfunction.
Additionally, it boasts two great performances from Attenborough and Hurt (both of whom play habitual liars that are cut from completely different cloths), as well as a good one from Geeson, whose Beryl should be smart enough to know better but eventually succumbs to her overwhelming sense of desperation.
Finally, 10 Rillington Place showcases the undeniable talents of a director whose “uncomplicated” approach to filmmaking has arguably helped relegate his name to the Hollywood backburner – even though he was responsible for a number of reasonably well known titles like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1967), Doctor Dolittle (1968), The Boston Strangler (1969), Tora, Tora, Tora (which he co-directed with Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukusaku in 1970), Soylent Green (1973), Mandingo (1975) and Conan the Destroyer (1984).
In their piece on Fleischer (1916-2006), Coursodon and Sauvage point out that while his output in terms of subject matter is varied, a good portion of his movies contain a “bleak pessimism” which remains “in keeping with the dominant mood of a long, although not uninterrupted, series of works dealing with neurotic loners and losers, pitiful psychopaths locked inside their private world, the helpless and the downtrodden”.
This accurately sums up 10 Rillington Place, a film which at times is so seemingly mundane and uncomfortably intimate that it has the uncanny knack of making the viewer momentarily forget about the abject brutality constantly bubbling beneath its dramatic surface.
Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage: “Richard Fleischer” – American Directors (Volume II), McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983, p 132-138
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed 10 Rillington Place on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films which released the film on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK Nov 28, 2016.
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