Cine-East Film Club Presents #52: 1971, 10 Rillington Place (Richard Fleischer)

by George_East on September 15, 2014

John Christie: ‘It’s the moral question that concerns me, the taking of life – no matter how rudimentary’

Richard Attenborough, Dickie, the ultimate Labour luvvie. Famous, of course, for directing historical epics like Ghandi, Cry Freedom and A Bridge Too Far – films that are perfectly watchable, but somehow do not quite make it into the great category.   Films that, when you watch them, make you think I wonder what David Lean would have done with this. Attenborough, in the director’s chair, was a craftsman rather than an artist, I think.

But Dickie was an actor too.   In fact it was acting that was his primary trade. In my cinematic mind he is deeply impressed as the commanding officer in The Great Escape, a film I must have watched a dozen times or more with my Dad as I grew up.   Noble authority figures are what it is most instinctive to associate him with, and yet the truth is that his greatest performances were pretty often as villains.

Three in particular came immediately to mind on hearing of his death at the age of 90 at the end of last month. Towards the beginning of his career there was his utterly terrifying boy-faced gangster, Pinkie in John Boulting’s take on Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1947) – one of the greatest of all British gangster pictures.   Later there was his brilliant portrayal of cynical British colonial general, Outram, in Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players, advancing the interest of Empire (and himself) as the local Indian potentates distract themselves with frivolities.

Thirdly, there was his performance as serial killer, John Christie, in Richard Fleischer’s true crime drama, 10 Rillington Place.  It is this film which the Cine-East Film Club has decided to present in Richard Attenborough’s honour.

The story is one that immediately lends itself to a film, involving as it does the last execution of an almost certainly innocent man in Britain, the execution of Timothy Evans for the murders of his wife and baby daughter – murders that were actually carried out (along with 6 others) by John Christie, who also lived in the same building, the address of the title.   It was a case that along with those of Ruth Ellis and Derek Bentley, led to the abolition of the death penalty.   The Ellis (Dance With A Stranger) and Bentley (Let Him Have It) cases have, of course also been made into films – both I think, significantly inferior to 10 Rillington Place.

The opening credits establish the film’s credentials. This is a true story, we are told. And then a second title card – it is not just that the film is true but also that the dialogue has been, wherever possible, taken from official records. This is a film, which sets itself up to be of documentary-style authority.

It is not intended to be a whodunit or to leave ambiguities. The film opens in 1944 with Christie drugging, raping and strangling a woman, Muriel, under the pretence of administering medicine to her. We then see him burying the body in the back garden, which reveals the hand of another body. From the outset we know, then,  that this quietly and deliberately spoken middle aged man is a serial killer.

Despite its documentary affectations, 10 Rillington Place is deeply cinematic. The art design captures perfectly the tired, literally war-torn, austerity of the late Attlee years. The London portrayed is grey and dimly lit. Save for the red of the trial judge’s robes and the red label marking on Evans’ file marked ‘death penalty’ which is placed before the Home Secretary after Evans’ conviction, bright colours are absent.

Attenborough’s performance as Christie is extraordinary. All understatement. No histrionics at all. He always seems to be there, lurking, watching, listening and waiting for his opportunity to kill again.   We know who he is and what he is capable of, but the Evanses don’t. When Christie appears with a cup of tea for Beryl towards the beginning of the film he seems to arrive out of nowhere, and then disappear back there as quickly, when his visit is interrupted by Beryl’s friend. A close (but temporary) escape

Christie is portrayed by Attenborough as having a precise bureaucratic mind, always able to cite regulations or laws to support his views as to why things aren’t possible (such as the use of the garden) or his experience as a police officer in the war or, so he says, medical training to justify his views. The banality of evil indeed – more like a local authority jobsworth or small town bank manager than the typical depiction of an unhinged serial killer. It is all an act, of course, but it is just about plausible enough to the illiterate Evans, and the desperate Beryl (who knows that she and her husband cannot afford to have another child) to enable him to win their trust, when he claims that he can help her out with ‘the termination‘.

The film is also a reminder of a time when John Hurt was still a great actor, before he turned into the sad ham he is today. His Evans is, like Christie, a fantastist – bragging about the number of women he’s got on the go or that he is a rich son of an Italian Count or that he is about to be promoted to managing director of the freight company for whom he works as a lorry driver. However, Evans is at core an innocent – an man-child out of his depth with his family responsibilities and in the big city. As such Christie is able to manipulate him without much effort into acting effectively as his own executioner.   The scenes between Hurt and Attenborough are wholly plausible, as Christie plays with Evans like a particularly sadistic cat with a baby mouse, persuading him that he has no choice but to flee after his wife has been killed, leaving Christie with the baby.

Some of the film was actually shot in the now demolished Rillington Place (with number 7 apparently standing in for the number 10) makes the film even more disturbing.  The run down terrace with its blackened walls and claustrophobic interior really did host this horror.    Like many serial killers, Christie relied on police looking for the easy and first solution that came along to the crimes that had been committed (in this case, in Evans, a man who repeatedly lied out of stupidity and an initially misplaced attempt to protect Christie). Further like many serial killers what in the end undid Christie was the ever accelerating pace of his killings – his wife, after the two Evanses and then a series of three women in quick succession (two of whom are only shown as bodies).

10 Rillington Place is also fascinating for depicting the beginnings of a changing London – from the all white mostly working class city of the war and immediate period afterwards, to the beginnings of its current ethnic diversity, as the Windrush generation of  immigrants settled in the capital in the 1950s.   The discovery of Christie’s crimes took place when new West Indian tenants settled in the grotty run down 10 Rillington Place, Christie having been evicted (in the film for failing to pay his rent; in reality for unlawful subletting).   This is the era of ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ – and these old run down tenements became the only places that many recently arrived immigrant workers could find to lodge.   The irony, of course, is that 10 Rillington Place was in Notting Hill – which now has, carnival aside, very little of its West Indian past remaining – and has instead been taken over by David Cameron and his ilk.

But 10 Rillington Place is so much more than simply a historical drama or social issue picture. It is a great British crime film and a truly disturbing piece of cinema.

Richard Attenborough RIP.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: