The Film: 10 Rillington Place (1971)
The Principles: Directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Richard Attenborough, John Hurt, and Judy Geeson. Based on the book by Ludovic Kennedy.
The Premise: A young couple in post-World War II London rent an apartment in a building managed by John Christie – an unassuming, quiet man who was also one of Britain’s most infamous serial killers.
Is It Good: Very much so, as long as you don’t mind staring into the abyss. Based on the true story of UK serial killer John Christie (Attenborough), who during the 1940s and early 1950s murdered at least eight women, 10 Rillington Place is a mercilessly dark and unconventional film. Christie would rent out rooms in his building as a front for his murders and also hired prostitutes to bring back and dispose of. The film focuses on one particular killing, that of Beryl Evans (Geeson), and the subsequent trial that wrongfully condemned her husband Tim (Hurt) to death. If you’re looking for a feel-good movie, stay the hell away from 10 Rillington Place.
After a sinisterly unsettling prologue,Tim and Beryl Evans move into the small, tenement-like apartment building with their infant daughter. Christie, who lives on the ground floor with his wife Ethel, is a generally off-putting, but generous landlord. He frequently brings them tea and calmly cools Tim and Beryl off as they’re engaged in furious martial warfare. Tim works a low-paying job in the trucking industry and Beryl stays at home to take care of the baby. When she becomes pregnant with a second child, they’re marriage literally implodes. Tim knows they can’t afford another mouth to feed, but he doesn’t want Beryl to “terminate” the baby because of his deep-rooted principles.
Christie, who can’t but overhear the couple’s woes, offers his own “termination” services. He used to be a doctor during WWII – a gas attack left him soft-spoken and disabled, making landlordship the only profession he can handle – and says he can take care of Beryl’s unborn child no problem. But first, here, hold this mask over your face and close your eyes…you may feel dizzy for a second…that’s just the gas…like at the dentist…to numb the pain.
When Tim returns home to find his wife dead and baby motherless, a bleak spiral of misery, deceit, and judicial half-assing unfurls in the bleakest manner I have ever witnessed on screen. The scariest part – more unnerving than the caches of corpses hidden all over Christie’s building – is that it’s all true. The cops botched the investigation, Tim was a patsy for Christie, and the poor bastard was subsequently executed for it.
I had read about how incredible Attenborough’s portrayal of Christie is, but nothing could have prepared me for the colossus of evil he believably portrays. He’s incredibly calculated and cold, with hints of real emotion peeking out only during really uncomfortable moments. I had to keep telling myself “This is Richard Attenborough. This is John Hammond, the lovable, enthusiastic grandpa from Jurassic Park. Christ.” The degree of his evil only builds up as the film goes on. I mean, the film opens with him killing a woman, so we know he’s a murderer, but it’s not until the film’s final 10 minutes or so that it’s revealed just how evil he really is and how long he’s been taking lives. A reveal near the end honestly made my jump out of my skin. I’m all inside-out now.
If you don’t know anything about the Christie murders and the trial of Tim Evans, I suggest watching the movie first then do your Wikipedia research. A lot of disturbing details were left outta the film (necrophilia, pubic hair collection) but reading about them first will reduce the shock value of what is in the film.
John Hurt, who is 31-years-young here, also delivers a terrific, heart-wrenching performance as the illiterate, mentally-slow Tim Evans. Although I felt horrible for him throughout the film as Christie’s manipulations increased, the guy just kept making it worse for himself. In the end, he was wrongly executed and the event led to death penalty reforms in the UK, which helped lead to its abolishment in 1961.
Director Richard Fleischer had a long, dynamic career that included a litany of genre work – Mr. Majestyk, Soylent Green, Doctor Dolittle. 10 Rillington Place is definitely a cinematic soulmate to his 1968 true crime film The Boston Strangler, but this one is a far darker beast. It’s easily one of the blackest, bleakest films ever in both its tone and style. Nearly the entire film takes place inside the narrow, claustrophobic apartment building. It was, in fact, filmed in the actual Rillington Place building where Christie lived. With such small space to film in, I doubt they brought in much lights. Shadows loom everywhere. There are some shots where you can barely see Christie peeking through a curtain or ghoulishly standing around a corner, listening in on Tim and Beryl. It’s really dark stuff.
Is It Worth a Look: Once, absolutely. It’s not the type of film you watch for entertainment value. It’s just so bleak and harrowing. But it should be viewed at least once by movie fans for severals reasons, the most crucial being Attenborough’s performance – one of the most terrifying serial killer performances in cinema. He makes Hannibal look like Gidget. It’s also a terribly underseen tale of true crime, so fans of that particular genre will certainly want to seek it out.
Random Anecdotes: Real-life executioner Albert Pierrpoint was a technical advisor for the execution scene. It was the first time British audiences had seen a British hanging, for it was at the time covered under the government’s Official Secrets Act. Under that act, they weren’t allowed to show any details concerning the execution. So Pierrpoint, under an assumed name, re-created the scene to increase the horror of what it was like from Tim Evans.
Attenborough’s make-up, including the terrific bald wig, took three hours to apply.
Cinematic Soulmates: Dance with a Stranger, The Executioner’s Song, The Boston Strangler