DVD: 10 Rillington Place (1971)

September 7, 2014 | By


10_Rillington_Place_R2Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Sony (U.K.)

Region: 2 (PAL)

Released:  March 24, 2004

Genre:  True Crime / Thriller

Synopsis: Vivid, intimate chronicle of Britain’s infamous serial killer John Reginald Christie.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary by actor John Hurt / Optional Intro + Interview Segments with actor Richard Attenborough / Filmographies / Lobby Card Stills / Fact Files.





This drama of Britain’s notorious serial killer remains one of the finest true crime films ever made, and deservedly sits alongside Peter Medak’s Let Him Have (1991) as one of the most powerful and wrenching tales of injustice with a potent anti-capital punishment stance.

Richard Attenborough agreed to star in Richard Fleischer’s film primarily because it chronicles the tragic case of Timothy Evans, the young man initially arrested for murdering his wife and child. Evans was convicted and hanged in 1949 before more graphic evidence materialized years later, prompting the police to arrest John Christie who murdered not only Evans’ family, but other women in the poor row house at the end of Rillington Street in Notting Hill.

Christie was hanged in 1953, but it took lobbying and the publication of Ludovic Kennedy’s book to bring some closure to the Evans family in the sixties, with Timothy given a posthumous official pardon (but his conviction remains on the books). When newly declassified information revealed further details, screenwriter Clive Exton (Rosemary & Thyme) and director Fleischer (fresh off the true crime thriller The Boston Strangler and the WWII blockbuster Tora! Tora! Tora!), set out to make a definitive drama which detailed how a mannered, soft-spoken monster was able to murder women and hide their cadavers in his home and ‘garden’ before a manhunt finally took him off the street.

10 Rillington Place begins with a WWII scene detailing Christie’s methods of luring, lying, knocking out, strangling, and raping a victim before leaping ahead a few years to the arrival of new tenants and expecting parents Timothy (John Hurt) and Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson), and their newborn Geraldine. The script compacts some events and details – Beryl arrives pregnant with her second child when in reality Geraldine was born during the family’s first months in the house – but the first half of the film covers the meticulous ways in which Christie took advantage of pregnant women in need of an abortion with his complicit wife Ethel (Pat Heywood).

For Attenborough, it’s a tour de force performance of a monster done with restraint, portraying the former volunteer police officer as average and ordinary – aspects that no doubt helped Christie convince his victims that he was once a promising medical student before an auto injury ended his career. The injustice done to Timothy Evans centres around Christie’s rape and murder of Beryl; convincing Timothy he too was complicit in her death by agreeing to the abortion procedure; and coordinating the lies and events that resulted in Timothy being blamed for the killings. (Christie murdered daughter Geraldine afterwards.)

Not unlike the tragic figure in Let Him Have It, Timothy had a low I.Q., and the fanciful ‘storyfier’ was easily manipulated by Christie and the police, and with three signed confessions it was an easy case to close, with the judge seeing Evans as a liar, a killer, and a bit of a moron for wasting the time of Britain’s judicial system with assorted variations of what happened that night.

Exton’s script applies imagination and dramatic license in estimating the character details leading up to Evans’ arrest, but they’re vividly rendered by a superb cast, and it’s clear from the final film how much everyone cared about the project.

Hurt is deeply moving as the fiery Timothy (it’s those watery eyes and that pain-racked face which allows him to portray vulnerability so well); Heywood, who resembles Ethel, portrays Christie’s wife as a woman aware of some details and suspicious of others, creating an emotional arc prior to her own fate; Geeson is very strong as a frustrated, trusting woman with her own independent streak that can match and handle Timothy when he’s drunk and volatile; Isobel Black (Twins of Evil) is solid as Beryl’s nosey friend whose presence Christie uses to further intensify Timothy’s ire; and the smaller roles are rounded out by an excellent roster of character actors.

Like his small crime and noir films from the fifties (especially the super-taut Narrow Margin), Fleischer’s instincts to focus on characters, lighting, use of silence, and relying on his able cast shows how much of his career was summarily wasted in bloated blockbusters, sleazy projects, and pulpy nonsense in the coming years (Mandingo, Amityville 3-D, Conan the Destroyer). He was an excellent director when the material was compelling, and he could manage a large team of actors. Geeson is surprisingly effective as Beryl in what, like Attenborough, may be her strongest role. (The actress was often underused in spite of appearing alongside major American stars in top-level films like To Sir, With Love and Brannigan.)

Fleischer shot the interiors in a sound stage, but the production used the exterior of the actual Christie house and street during production, and the set décor is vividly evocative of a wretched residential armpit where poor and exhausted families were crammed into ugly row houses surrounded by aging concrete and layers of grime. The film’s look is deliberately bleak, and it’s very rare when John Dankworth’s music makes its stealth appearance.

Alongside the thriller Blind Terror (1971), 10 Rillington Place is often regarded as a rare gem in Fleischer’s late career, and while it remains available only as a bare bones MOD in the U.S. from Sony, the studio’s British arm released a special edition in Britain boasting a commentary track by Hurt, interview and intro by Attenborough, and some fact files and lobby card stills.

Although the chosen ratio of 1.85:1 seems a little tight (a TVOntario broadcast version during the 1990s offered more detail in what looks like a 1.78:1 transfer), it’s a really solid transfer that brings out the muted colour palette of brownish cinematography by Denys Coop (Billy Liar, Bunny Lake is Missing), and the DVD extras provide needed context for this important British film that happened to have been directed by an American.

Attenborough regards Fleischer as filmmaker with European sensibilities, and provides concise, personal reflections on the film’s genesis, his decision to participate, playing the tough and depressing role of Christie with a peculiar skull cap and a devilish row of teeth, and he offers some thoughts on the killer’s machinations for being so cruel, and ruthlessly manipulative.

Hurt’s commentary is consistently excellent and provides production details as well as his own insight into Timothy’s dilemma in being an easy victim, and the actor offers his own theory of Timothy’s shifting confessions. Hurt’s insight into his acting methodology are thoroughly unpretentious, and he describes in wry detail the working atmosphere at the small studio, and the gallows’ humour the cast used to lighten the tone during filming.

The rapidity of British (in)justice for a capital crime is one of the most potent, lingering aspect of the drama, because the period in which Timothy was arrested, the trial, his conviction, and hanging occur fast in the film, and the eventual execution is brutally banal: there’s a moment of calm, a mechanical change of locale, and within seconds an innocent man is killed by the state.

Amid all the stylized and grimy true crime and serial killer films and documentaries that regularly saturate TV and film, it’s a testament to the skill and care of its makers that 10 Rillington Place maintains its power as a drama, a tale of gross injustice, and a vivid portrait of an evil manipulator.

Worth a peek: an episode of Fred Dineage: Murder Casebook (2011) ‘re-examining’ the original case facts.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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