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The Sony Screen Classics By Request Burn On Demand distribution program drifts into grim territory with 1970's 10 Rillington Place, a dramatized account of a real-life serial killer in London's Notting Hill district. Director Richard Fleischer had just come off one of the biggest films of his career in The Boston Strangler, which made use of flashy split-screen effects, a short-lived trend of the time. 10 Rillington Place stands back and watches dispassionately as horrible things happen to people totally unequipped to defend themselves. And the perpetrator is an anonymous toad of a man who lives in his own world of murderous desires.
In 1944, auxilliary policeman John Christie (Richard Attenborough), pretending to have a relief treatment for bronchitis, gasses, rapes and strangles a woman. He buries her in his back yard, where another body is already hidden. In 1949 John and his meek wife Ethel (Pat Heywood) take in the Evanses Tim, Beryl (John Hurt & Judy Geeson) and their baby daughter Geraldine as sub-lessors of two upstairs rooms. The couple are near destitute; Tim boasts about his prospects but is actually illiterate and not very bright. He's easily taken in by Christie, who again presents himself as having a background as a doctor. When Beryl becomes pregnant again Christie volunteers to perform an abortion. By counting on the couple's foolish reliance on authority, Christie has a plan to blame the entire crime on Tim.
Serial killer John Christie operated for over ten years and killed at least seven women. He was no mad genius, just a very lucky monster with the knack for manipulating people less intelligent than himself. Christie's sordid, appalling story is a worst-case murder scenario, a perfect storm of homicide. He was the main tenant in a dilapidated row house with one outside toilet in the yard. When his wife was absent -- or not paying attention -- he would invite a prostitute or stranger home pretending to have special medical knowledge and promising a special treatment. It always consisted of administering common house gas disguised with another odor. When the victim was incapacitated Christie would rape and strangle them. His case, one of the most notorious English murder cases of the 20th century, became even more relevant as fuel for anti- capital punishment movement in the late 1960s. Tim Evans was convicted of murder in the first degree and rushed to the hangman. The real culprit was uncovered only three years later. 1 Along with the famous Derek Bentley "Let Him Have It" case, sympathy for Tim Evans helped get a ban on capital punishment through the courts.
Richard Attenborough took the leading part in 10 Rillington Place as a gesture in support of the striking down of the death penalty. Although we know the actor for his heroic and charming roles, Attenborough had achieved star status twenty years before by playing the "spiv" gangster Pinky in a film adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. His John Christie is a soft-spoken, heartless monster who places his sexual gratification above any human value. It almost makes one sick to contemplate Christie's crime against the Evans family. It's like watching an accident in slow motion -- we can easily guess what awful, pointlessly destructive thing Christie is going to do next.
Director Fleischer plays the horror straight, refusing to give his characters sentimental traits or to lighten the mood with even a hint of humor. Christie picks up on Tim's seemingly endless capacity to be manipulated -- the young man can't read or write, and immediately accepts whatever lies Christie offers him. It's a powerful role for John Hurt, a pathetic victim so emotionally stricken that everything he does after the murder turns into something grossly inconsistent and self-incriminating. A man needs to be in his right mind to assert his innocence under pressure. Judy Geeson is the perfect receptor for Christie's treachery. Desiring an abortion, she tells no-one and relies on Christie's empty promises. The movie is as much a statement in favor of reproductive rights as it is against capital punishment.
Actually, we're not thinking about either of those issues because we're too deep in depression over the events of 10 Rillington Place. Christie is no genius, and the only reason he doesn't get caught is because his pitifully stupid victims walk right into his phony traps. We do wonder exactly what's going through Ethel Christie's mind, as she watches her husband lie through his teeth on the witness stand. And Beryl's friend Alice (Isobel Black of Kiss of the Vampire) did know that Beryl wanted an abortion, so we wonder where she was during the trial. 2
10 Rillington Place is designed in full "kitchen sink" mode. The color palette sticks to drab green and drab browns, producing images as grimy as the run-down historical locations used for filming. Art Director Maurice Carter evokes in color the depressed economic situation in England after WW2, when things were so bad that wartime rationing on some commodities continued for ten years. That there is anybody happy in this awful situation seems a miracle. The only value in the film seems to be the Evans' baby daughter Geraldine, who is adored by her mother, Alice and Ethel Christie.
Life can be frustrating, and contemplating its screaming injustice is too easily seen as a pointless exercise. Nazi war criminals function for decades, free and clear of retribution, with entire governments committed to protecting them. When John Christie finally confesses there's little or nothing to be learned from him, except that he killed some women. Even that's unreliable, as Christie may have wanted to make himself seem more mad in order to facilitate an insanity defense. 10 Rillington Place leaves us feeling sickened, and certainly less trusting of strangers who may only be pretending to be our friends.
The address on Rillington Place became so notorious that the locals had the name of the street changed. In the late 1970s, the entire area was redeveloped, wiping out the original building.
The Sony Screen Classics By Request DVD-R of 10 Rillington Place presents the film in a clean, sharp transfer that retains the original's dreary appearance. An effective trailer is included that plays up the film's salacious murder angle. But the movie itself downplays graphic details about the actual killings, making an interesting contrast with the murders in Hitchcock's 1972 Frenzy. Hitchcock's film is meant to be mordantly humorous, but after seeing 10 Rillington Place its slayings come off as gratuitously sadistic.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
10 Rillington Place rates:
1. There remains a controversy about whether Tim Evans was entirely innocent, as shown in the movie; 10 Rillington Place is based on a book that sets out to prove that the young man was framed from the get-go by the diabolical John Christie.
2. The copy of the film on this disc is the final release version. Unless a simple typo was involved, it's possible that the reported 139-minute version reviewed in the New York Times in 1971 was "pre-release", and contained more details and explanations about the trial.
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T'was Ever Thus.