10 Rillington Place / R.I.P. Richard Attenborough

September 7, 2014 | By

10_Rillington_Place_poster_m10 Rillington Place (1971) still ranks as one of the best true crime films ever made, plus the rich roles it gave stars Richard Attenborough and John Hurth as the serial killer John Reginald Christie and Timothy Evans, respectively. Evans was found guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and daughter and hung, but his innocence only came to light after Christie was ultimately arrested – reeking bodies alerted a new crop of tenants in the wretched row house where Christie killed and stashed his victims – and both Evans’ family and author Ludovic Kennedy pushed to have Timothy’s’ name cleared and his remains interred in consecrated ground.

It’s an utterly bleak take of injustice and sickening behaviour, yet Attenborough took the role and transformed it into something deliberately vivid to ensure the film left its mark about a the ills of the disenfranchised and capital punishment – causes in which he fervently believed.

In the interview on Sony’s Region 2 Special Edition DVD, Attenborough describes how he handled portraying such a miserable figure in such a disturbing film, and his determination to see the role through in spite of brief moments of doubt. He was in every way a pro, and a talent with convictions rooted in being honest on screen, and in his directorial career, telling honest stories of figures tackling enormous odds to better their respective societies.

The actor and director died last week at the age of 90, leaving behind an enormous body of work in British, international, and American film, but for myself he’s best known for a handful of work: playing the youthful thug Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock (1947), a marvelous crime film capped with a truly cruel ending, and a film still unavailable in Region 1 land; roles in the military films Guns at Batasi (1964) and the dour The Sand Pebbles (1966); as aforementioned serial killer Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971); the benevolent wizard behind the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993); and as director of Gandhi (1982) – probably the most expansive effort to detail life in India under British rule before and during the country’s liberation, and partition which created neighbouring Pakistan.

It was an epic film designed for international audiences, but its success lay in several stellar performances – Ben Kinglsey’s Gandhi is superb; and Edward Fox’ General Dyer is ostensibly a character representing arrogant colonialism at its shittiest  – and highlighting the absurdities of colonial rule in which locals were treated as fourth class citizens, and natural resources that were commercially farmed, mined, packaged, and shipped off to Europe with few benefits working their way back to locals who often couldn’t afford the refined products made from the materials they had harvested.

The pros and cons of British rule in former colonies are weighty subjects, and have been chronicled in myriad scholarly works, but in spite of the commercial veneer and manipulative drama within Gandhi, it did ring true in many of its points. When a friend turned to her father and said ‘That didn’t really happen,’ her father replied, ‘Of course it did. Indians had to step off the sidewalk and walk through whatever mud or shit lay on the street to allow clear passage for a Britisher.’

Gandhi could be branded as populist rhetoric, but there’s another way to view the film if one believes it’s a sermon as slick and epic as Attenborough’s anti-apartheid dramatization of Steven Biko‘s life and murder in Cry Freedom (1987): there are few films which successfully utilize an historical figure to tell, in unpretentious fashion, the epic struggle of a nation, especially under colonial rule, and what makes Gandhi work is its relative honestly rather than being an earnest, well-meaning drama.

Central to the film’s enduring legacy as an historical lesson in exploitive colonialism and seething local divisions is Kingsley’s powerful performance of an ordinary man, and Attenborough’s skill in knowing when to selectively apply cinematic tricks (editing, sound design) to heighten an event: the women and children murdered in the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre is arguably the film’s most powerful sequence, capped with an inquiry in which an advocate asks the cold Dyer, “General, how does a child shot with a 303 Lee-Enfield “apply” for help?”

RichardAttenborough_sAttenborough directed 12 films spanning biographical dramas with historical figures (Young Winston, Gandhi, Cry Freedom, Chaplin, Shadowlands, Grey Owl), several war films (A Bridge Too Far, In Love and War, Closing the Ring), and a few oddities – the horror film Magic, and the musicals Oh! What a Lovely War and A Chorus Line – and while not every one was a gem or hit all of the right dramatic marks, they represent the work of a marvelous talent whose career spanned theatre and film, acting and directing, and as dour as 10 Rillington Place may be, it’s a good starting point to remember the man, because it’s such a concentration of his acting skills in transcending what was a monster clothed in the mundane veneer of a mannered, ordinary man.

R.I.P., Sir Richard.

Coming next: Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition of the little-seen CanCon arthouse thriller The Disappearance with Donald Sutherland and Francine Racette.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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