ON DVD & BLU-RAY
10 Rillington Place (1971) Blu Ray & DVD (Powerhouse/Indicator)
10 Rillington Place is based on a book by Ludovic Kennedy which chronicles the exploits of a real-life London serial killer and necrophiliac named John Reginald Christie (here played by Richard Attenborough) who was active from 1943-1953. The film starts at the titular house in 1944 as Christie administers a deadly gas to a woman under the pretense of it being a medicinal aid to bronchitis. Flashing forward sometime afterward, a young Welsh couple named Beryl and Timothy Evans (played by Judy Geeson and John Hurt) arrives, along with their baby, to view a room Christie has put up for rent. Despite Beryl’s misgivings Timothy decides to take it.
Timothy initially boasts dishonestly about his financial situation - claiming that he is about to land a middle-management job despite not being able to read or write. When he finds out that his wife is pregnant with a second child, he is furious as they can’t afford another mouth to feed. The wily Christie picks up on the situation and, claiming that he has gained some medical training that was curtailed by a car accident and the outbreak of WWII, offers to help Beryl to abort the baby. However, he mentions a catch to her husband: a 10% chance that she will die as a result.
Needless to say, Christie uses the opportunity to make Beryl his next victim. When Timothy comes home and hears the news he is devastated, but Christie manipulates him into keeping his mouth shut as the latter could be accused of murder - and the former, by extension, would be seen as an accessory. He says that he will bury her by opening the manhole cover in front of his house and dropping her corpse in. However, when Timothy goes to visit some in-laws back in Wales they ask him about Beryl as she hasn’t written to them in some time. At that moment he cracks up and goes to the local police station to “confess” to the murder of his wife.
When the law opens up the manhole cover, however, they don’t find bodies. As it is now clear that Timothy has fabricated his original story he changes it to confess that he falsely “admitted” the murders so as to protect Christie. The police then decide to search the latter’s home and find the bodies of both Beryl and her baby (whom Christie had also killed while Timothy was away in Wales). As a result, both Christie and Timothy end up in court with the threat of the noose (still legal in the U.K. at that time) hanging over their heads.
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This grubby pry into the lair of a serial killer was helmed by Richard Fleischer, a director widely considered to be versatile in approach but variable in quality. This is his second movie of this type within a 3 year period (after 1968’s The Boston Strangler) and arguably the even stronger of the two. He eschews flashy flourishes and graphic nastiness, setting his horror within the banality of pure evil and the depressing environment in which it is allowed to thrive.
Much of the film’s power comes from the performance of Richard Attenborough. Resisting the temptation to ham it up he comes across as a somewhat homely and unassuming ageing middle-class man - the kind that sits as a piece of human furniture within the fabric of British society, barely noticed let alone suspected of anything. However, there is a controlled, thinly-veiled malice there: an emotionally-dead coldness masquerading as the kind of “stiff-upper-lip” attitude that Brits were supposed to display during the war years (and, come to think of it, are still expected to display today). He’s unnervingly convincing as he runs rings around the gullible, vulnerable people in his orbit, manipulating them into all sorts of prone situations.
In contrast to the cool Christie, the over-emotional, cracking Timothy is both a tragic counterpoint and a similarly deceitful (yet on a far smaller scale) unwilling accomplice. As played by John Hurt, he begins with a bouncy young cockiness but soon slips through uncontrollable rage and helpless sobbing at the various predicaments in which he lands. He got some well-deserved recognition via a BAFTA nomination for his performance here, though it’s a shame that the more restrained but similarly effective work by Attenborough was overlooked in this regard.
While Fleischer’s direction avoids showing off, he does display an undeniably sure hand in his shrewd camera placements and development of a truly poisonous atmosphere. The period (right at the end of WWII) is recreated with a faded, soot-blackened vividness - all terraced houses, outhouses and browned art deco wallpaper. Indeed, the house exteriors were shot at the real 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, London (fans of the morbid should note that the property can no longer be seen as it was demolished shortly after this film was made). The world depicted here comes across a truly miserable spawning ground for both the damaged and the damagers. His camerawork avoids excessive movement, focussing instead on emphasising the stifling confines of the titular house and ominous close-ups of the various paraphernalia that Christie uses in his murders. Sensationalist devices are consciously avoided; very little is seen of Christie’s nasty acts bar two bloodless kills and the odd brief corpse shot; there’s very little music and what there is (by John Dankworth) is decidedly minimalist.
Perhaps the ace in 10 Rillington Place’s hand, however, is that it points out that evil isn’t something exclusively in the hands of a blatant psychopath like Christie. Here, we see a justice system (and, in particular, one with a death penalty at its disposal) that is rigid to the point of weighing up some very superficial facts about both Timothy and Christie rather than looking more deeply into the clinical evidence and the respective psychologies of the pair. It is implied that it is the views of wider society and its institutions that have allowed the latter to function successfully for so long (until fate does eventually catch up to him with overwhelming evidence at the film’s close). This is what seals the film as a truly skin-crawl-inducing classic.
Runtime: 111 mins
Dir: Richard Fleischer
Script: Clive Exton, from a book by Ludovic Kennedy
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson, John Hurt, Pat Heywood, Isobel Black
The colour scheme is muted and grey, but in a clearly intentional manner. The 4K restoration does pick out a considerable level of finer detail in the brighter moments; the rich pink and fine sweat beads on faces come out very well during scenes of high tension.
Like the video there’s nothing too flashy to pick out. That said, it all seems fine with nothing to complain about.
An accompanying 32-page booklet begins with the essay “The House of Death” by Thirza Wakefield. She looks at Fleischer’s ongoing opposition to the death penalty (as covered in Compulsion and The Boston Strangler as well as 10 Rillington Place), the various reference points the film holds in classic horror and German Expressionism, and the twists the story takes that make it so disturbing. It’s an outstanding essay and a must-read for understanding the film’s context within the director’s body of work. We also get “The Hunt for the Man With the Staring Eyes” - a look at various newspaper reports about the 10 Rillington Place murders, with notes by Jeff Billington. Interesting as a glimpse into the news reporting style of the era; Mr. Beresford Brown (who discovered the bodies that led to Christie’s arrest) is described as being “coloured” - a now politically-incorrect term.
On the disc itself we get the following:
Audio Commentary with Judy Geeson and film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman
Geeson’s voice is an exceptionally soothing and pleasant listen as she is interviewed by Dobbs and Redman. They talk about the infamous location, revealing that several London located films were shot in the area (the Nic Roeg/Donald Cammell film Performance was shot around the corner). They discuss the grim London of the period with its pea soup fog, outdoor toilets, rationing and dosshouses - a situation that, as Lem Dobbs reveals, was difficult for Americans (being incomparably wealthier at this time) to get their head around. They also talk about the controversy surrounding the case; some have argued that Timothy Evans may not have been as innocent as the Ludovic Kennedy take on the story implies, as the latter had cast him as such as part of an agenda to end capital punishment. it’s an outstandingly good commentary.
Audio Commentary by John Hurt
Hurt’s commentary is less wall-to-wall than Geeson’s but he does bring plenty of his own perspective. He maintains that a sense of humour is important for coping with such a grim role. He also reveals that he drank about 5 pints of real Guinness during the pub scene - something that would rarely be done nowadays on a film set as attitudes to moviemaking have become more puritanical. In addition, he talks about the naivety of this period in Britain when few had access to TV for information, and serial killers were such a little-known phenomenon that murder sites were visited on coach tours. Hurt comes across as being highly intelligent in dissecting his own (ironically, not so bright) character here as well as that of Christie.
Intro by Sir Richard Attenborough
As usual with Sir Richard, his intro veers into somewhat over-gushing proclamations (albeit admittedly directed towards a genuinely great film).
Interview with Sir Richard Attenborough
A fascinating interview about how, as a character actor, he slipped into such a challenging role. He fully admits how unpleasant and difficult it was to play such a deranged real-life persona and, moreover, work in the very location where they carried out their gruesome deeds. Highly recommended viewing for any aspiring actors.
An interview with Judy Geeson. There is a lot of overlap with her commentary, but nonetheless the feeling comes across that she was glad to take this character-driven role in order to break from her erstwhile “dolly bird” image.
A theatrical trailer, isolated score and image gallery round out the extras. It’s a great collection and a real coup that all three of the film’s main stars were assembled for commentaries and/or interview docs so long after it was made.
This quietly disturbing film is one of the finest of its period, albeit not one of the most remembered. Hopefully this excellent home media release will redress the balance.