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Thursday 8 December 2016

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Clive Exton, from the book by Ludovic Kennedy
Stars: Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson and John Hurt

Somehow I let this feature get past me and I have no idea why. I can safely get a pass from seeing it on initial release because I was too busy being born, but it must have played on British television while I was growing up and, as a boy who had both an interest in true crime and a tendency to read the Radio Times each week to figure out what I wanted to watch (this was in the dark ages before VCRs let alone DVRs), I would surely have noticed it. After all, the address of the title is a standard trivia question in the UK. Where did John Christie commit eight murders between 1943 and 1953? That one’s a gimme. However, I find it more chilling that I’d also let the importance of both the film and the book by journalist Ludovic Kennedy upon which it was based, get by me too. Perhaps like many, I’d associated it with murders rather than hangings and it’s the latter that has more resonance. Put simply, the hanging of Timothy Evans, an innocent man, is a key reason why capital punishment was abolished in the UK.

Contemporary critics didn’t like 10 Rillington Place because it didn’t do what they expected. It’s not a thriller, surviving on its use of tension and suspense; neither is it a traditional serial killer story, in which we delve into the mind of a madman. It’s an exercise in inevitability and that’s entirely the point. It follows the inexorable path towards a miscarriage of justice that cannot be undone or even mitigated and the fact that the guilty man was eventually hanged is only a small saving grace. It’s not an enjoyable picture to watch in many ways, though film fans can’t fail to appreciate the performances, especially those of Richard Attenborough as John Christie and a young John Hurt as the man whom he manipulated so easily. The direction, which is what disappointed those critics in 1971, is impeccable too, courtesy of Richard Fleischer, who would have been a hundred years old today, and I was as stunned by his directorial restraint as I was by Hurt’s bravado portrayal of an illiterate Welshman in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The script, adapted from Kennedy’s book by Clive Exton, who had the benefit of the author’s technical advice during production, is relatively close to the accepted course of real events. It even boldly states as it begins that, ‘This is a true story. Whenever possible the dialogue has been based on official documents.’ That doesn’t mean that it tells the whole story, of course. The murder that we watch as the film begins is Christie’s second murder rather than his first and a great deal is compressed at the end, all for the sake of narrative flow, but it doesn’t depart from the pertinent facts in any dangerous way. Also, like its source book, it makes a number of educated guesses, but none of them ring false. This was a problematic case, in that the innocent man, for reasons that we’ll soon get into, made three official statements to the police, two of which were untrue. While he’s honest on the stand, his credibility has been shot and he’s missing certain key information that would have backed up his case. Are you confused yet? Well, let us begin.

John Christie, in the recognisable form of Richard Attenborough, is at once a creepy and calming fellow, an odd mixture that helps us understand why so many women trusted him. He’s a short man with a severely receding hairline who wears glasses and speaks so softly that his voice could be described as a whisper. It’s a highly unthreatening combination, though one more sinister today as pop culture has associated this look with the Nazi officer next door. It’s simple to suggest that Anthony Hopkins borrowed some of this performance for his famous take on Hannibal Lecter, but it’s misleading too as there’s none of his dominant genius here nor a hint of his devilish good taste. I’ve always pictured Brian Cox rather than Hopkins whenever Lecter (or Lecktor in his instance) is brought into conversation, but I can see myself blurring Attenborough’s Christie and Hopkins’s Lecter together because I’d dearly love to have seen Attenborough portray Hannibal the cannibal as the shabby little man he makes Christie.
We begin in London during the Blitz, but the air raid siren seems to carry an additional warning, pleading with Muriel Eady not to trust John Christie to cure her bronchitis using his ‘special mixture’. It turns out to be Friar’s Balsam to mask the influx of domestic gas, which has a strong carbon monoxide content. ‘You may feel just a bit dizzy,’ he tells her, as he puts a makeshift mask over her face; when she fights, he holds it until she drifts into unconsciousness. After he strangles her, it’s implied that he sexually assaults her, then he buries her in the communal garden behind his terrace. We see that she’s not the first body to go into this ground. We then skip forward five years to meet the other key players in this sordid and sorry saga: Tim and Beryl Evans, who move into a flat upstairs with their baby daughter, Geraldine. The war is over, but Rillington Place still looks shabby, even in the daylight. And it’s worth mentioning that this really is Rillington Place, even if had been renamed to Ruston Close and they shot at number 7 not 10.

The Evanses are recognisable faces too. John Hurt looks scarily young as Tim, even though he was a decade into his film career and I’ve seen him five years earlier in A Man for All Seasons. By comparison, Judy Geeson looks old as Beryl, because I tend to picture her as the schoolgirl she played in To Sir, with Love in 1967; I really should delve more into her work of the seventies. Both are excellent in this picture, matching the quality of what could easily have been a dominant performance from Attenborough. Geeson, the Meg Ryan of her day, is eminently desirable and easily led, attributes which would have been seen as complementary at the time; but it has to be said that she’s rather annoying, the catch in her being a catch, as it were. She sells both aspects of Beryl Evans capably in a way that seems passive but still avoids her being overwhelmed by the more overt performances of her male co-stars. After all, it has to be said that Christie and Tim Evans are gifts of parts to actors who know what to do with them.
Attenborough is the lead, playing a role that he knew he wouldn’t enjoy. ‘I do not like playing the part,’ he explained to The Times, ‘but I accepted it at once without seeing the script,’ adding, ‘I have never felt so totally involved in any part as this.’ He thoroughly inhabits the character, not once letting his creepy calmness lapse. The chilling nature of the man is there in the way he smiles and the way he hovers. It’s in the way he’s constantly helping people in ways that enforce his own importance; he might seem like the landlord but he isn’t. And, more than anything, it’s there in his quiet manipulations, like when he realises that Beryl wants to have an abortion and plants the seed that he used to be a doctor and could take care of it on the cheap. The scene where he’s preparing to conduct that abortion is blistering; he’s killed already but he still shakes, whether from nerves, anticipation or both. There are workmen outside but he just can’t resist the temptation to take one more victim.

And, if Attenborough is chilling as Christie, Hurt is award-worthy as Evans. I’ve seen him in so much over the years that I’m aware just how much of a talent he has, but he plays very believably stupid here and that’s really tough to do, especially for an actor who so believably plays professors and other educated men. Evans wasn’t inept, idiotic or imbecilic; he simply had a below average IQ and little enough education that he was illiterate and even more easily led than his wife. It’s in his eyes and in subtle movements of his head. It’s in his overblown reactions to his wife’s hints and barbs, because he can’t argue his way out of such situations and thus has to scream and shout, even if he wakes up the whole terrace. And, of course, it’s in the moments in which he uses physical strength to reinforce his dominance. He may not be a killer, but he’s a violent man with a violent temper. Hurt plays those scenes as well as the happy or bewildered ones. I can’t remember seeing a more credibly lost man than Hurt late in this film.
Holding these exquisite performances together is Fleischer’s direction, which is utterly controlled and was misunderstood at the time. An anonymous Variety critic praises Hurt and Fleischer, calling 10 Rillington Place ‘an absorbing and disturbing picture’, but fails to acknowledge the point, even expressing surprise that people might find more interest in Evans than Christie. The point is not that Christie killed people but that Christie killed people and persuaded the powers that be into hanging a mental midget for those crimes instead of him, even testifying on the stand in front of the man he was setting up. By comparison, Vincent Canby, a critic for The New York Times, nails the film’s purpose, starting his review with the fact that Evans was executed but posthumously pardoned, an act which prompted the abolition of the death penalty. However, he suggests that the ‘small, unimaginative people’ lessen the film’s entertainment value, whereas I’d counter that the dreary killer in working class grime heightens it.

You see, Fleischer steadfastly refuses to sensationalise any aspect of this case. Christie wasn’t remotely as clever as he thought he was and he made a string of stupid mistakes, but none of them were caught by the police, who were hindered by being brought in through an obviously false confession by Evans. This is another masterpiece scene for Hurt, because it’s a real mess of a confession that, incredibly, aims to protect his wife’s killer, because he believes him to be a friend who merely tried to help them and failed to keep Beryl alive through the abortion procedure. ‘He’s a bit simple,’ one cop tells another. Caught out by inescapable truth, he has to come clean on his second attempt which, of course, isn’t believed in the wake of the first. Even though many of us know what is to come, we still root for the poor simpleton, not because he’s remotely sympathetic but because we know that he’s innocent. The whole point of the film is for the hangman to not listen to us in the cheap seats screaming at him that he’s hanging the wrong man.
The hanging of Timothy Evans is an incredibly brutal scene, not for any of the reasons we might reasonably expect with our 21st century history with brutal film, but because it’s so quick. The camera shifts to handheld as Evans is walked from one room to the next and, before we know it, it’s all over. There’s no procession, no prayer, no last words. There’s no ritual at all and we can fairly believe that, given that Albert Pierrepoint, the man who hanged both Evans and Christie, advised the production to ensure that it would handle the scene accurately. Evans is there to be hanged and that’s what happens, quickly and efficiently, to the degree we can reasonably accept that, even as it’s happening, he still can’t believe that it will. What’s more, as Evans falls to his death, we’re shifted in a truly twisted segue to Christie straightening his bad back two years later. Canby calls that a common cinematic trick, but I thought it epitomised the film because the death of an innocent man had been utterly accepted and forgotten.

Fleischer, an American by birth and residence, must have been interested in the subject because he addressed it in more than one of his films. In 1959, he directed Compulsion, a drama based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, in which they’re saved from the hangman’s noose by an impassioned speech given by their lawyer, played by Orson Welles, against capital punishment. In 1968, he made The Boston Strangler, with Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo, who was convicted not for a string of thirteen murders, to which he had confessed, but for a series of rapes. His lawyer had the death penalty removed as a possibility in exchange for admitting guilt in a plea bargain. DeSalvo later withdrew his confession and nobody has been convicted of any of the murders that he is suspected to have committed. Capital punishment is an odd focus for a man who was born into the film world, the son of Max Fleischer, who is still my favourite American animator; I’ll take his Snow White over Walt Disney’s any day of the week.
Then again, the Oscar he won in 1948 wasn’t for any of the films for which he would later become known. He made films noir like Armored Car Robbery and The Narrow Margin; big budget blockbusters, like Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Tora! Tora! Tora!; action films like Violent Saturday and Mr. Majestyk; sci-fi classics like Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green; fantasies like Red Sonja and Conan the Destroyer; period pieces like The Vikings and Barabbas; and crime films like The Last Run and The New Centurions. He was a versatile director, who even ventured into odd territories for Che! and Mandingo, but none of those won him an Academy Award. That Oscar came for a documentary feature he produced in 1948, Design for Death, to explain Japanese culture to American soldiers occupying Japan. It was written by Theodore Geisel and his wife; Geisel is, of course, better known to us today as Dr. Seuss, an odd fact that mirrors how odd it was for it to be what the Academy would remember Fleischer for. We remember him for much more.

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