Movies: 10 Rillington Place (1971)

In the annals of serial killer-dom, John Reginald Christie might not be all that familiar a name to Americans, but he’s absolutely notorious in the UK. The seemingly mild-mannered fellow, known to friends and family as Reg, killed at least eight people in the 1940s—stashing their bodies in and around his Notting Hill, London flat—and was hanged for his crimes in 1953. His case is notable, not only because of the number of victims and the suspicion that Christie was a necrophile, but also because a likely innocent man was sent to the gallows in 1950 for two murders which Christie himself almost certainly committed.

In 1961, a British journalist named Ludovic Kennedy, who specialized in cases of miscarriages of justice, wrote a book called Ten Rillington Place, in which he laid out the argument that John Christie had manipulated the aforementioned innocent man—a working-class Welshman named Timothy Evans—into taking the fall for the murders of his wife and baby daughter. Evans was posthumously pardoned in 1966, but his wrongful conviction and execution was instrumental in the UK’s subsequent abolition of the death penalty.

In 1970, a film adaptation, its title slightly changed to 10 Rillington Place, was released worldwide to mixed reviews, but as time went on, critical assessment of the film has become much more positive. I remember seeing the movie probably about twenty years ago or so—as I was at the time going back and forth to the UK a great deal and was fascinated by British movies as well as British serial killers—and absolutely loving it. True, it isn’t a pleasant film to watch by any means, but it has a quietly eerie and enthralling quality to it that pulls you right into its drab and claustrophobic universe.

The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, whose résumé doesn’t really suggest that he’d be the right person for this material; he was always known more as a successful, moneymaking director rather than an artistic one, having made such diverse crowd-pleasers as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Doctor Doolittle, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Soylent Green, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, and Amityville 3-D. But he works absolute miracles with this film, wringing gripping drama out of a handful of characters and essentially a single location. Incidentally, some parts of the film were shot in the actual house where the real murders occurred (which was torn down not long after this film was made), though other bits were shot at another house on the same street, or on a sound stage at Shepperton Studios. The movie also uses actual testimony and dialogue from the official court records, wherever possible.

At the beginning of the movie, it’s 1944, and we see a woman arriving at 10 Rillington Place. She’s ushered in by the balding, soft-spoken, spectacle-wearing Christie (played with impeccably prissy menace by Richard Attenborough), who, we eventually learn, has told this woman that he has some medical training and can help her with her chronic bronchitis. In the guise of making her a tonic that must be inhaled as a vapor, he gasses her either dead or unconscious, after which it’s implied that he rapes her, strangles her with a rope to finish her off, and buries her in the back garden.

That established, the movie then jumps ahead to 1949, and we get into the meat of the story. John Christie and his wife Ethel are sub-letting out the top two floors of their three-story row house. Apparently, an older gentleman named Mr. Kitchener lives on the second floor (though we never see him), but the top floor is still to rent. Enter the Evans family: Tim (played by John Hurt in a BAFTA-nominated performance), Beryl (played by Judy Geeson), and baby Geraldine. Tim, a poorly educated and illiterate Welshman who nonetheless likes to tell tall tales about his fabulously wealthy family and prowess with women, makes sure to inform Christie that the flat on offer is far less grand than the one he and his family had been living in. But after Christie immediately clocks to the guy’s insecurities and prejudices, and tells him that an Irish family was very interested in the flat as well, Tim snaps the place right up, clearly desperate for any place to live on his meager salary.

The family moves in, and it’s obvious right from the start that Christie has designs on the pretty young Beryl. He takes to appearing in her flat bearing cups of tea, and offering her a listening ear if she ever needs one. Beryl is intensely creeped out by him, but since he’s her landlord and hasn’t really done anything overtly alarming, she sort of grins and bears it.

She and Tim have a volatile relationship, though, and when she tells him that she’s pregnant again and has been taking pills to try to induce an abortion because there’s no way they can afford another baby, he goes off on a drunken tear, screaming and smacking her around so much that it pretty much wakes up the whole street. Christie, of course, is very put out by all the commotion, threatening to throw them out if they cause any more disturbances.

But Christie also uses the rift in the Evans’s marriage to wangle his way closer to Beryl, getting her to admit that she and Tim were fighting over her decision to end her pregnancy. Sensing an opportunity, Christie concocts a story that before the war, he started to train as a doctor, and assisted on at least a hundred abortions. In fact, he’d be quite happy to take care of Beryl’s little problem for her completely gratis, provided she keeps her mouth shut about it so he doesn’t get arrested.

Beryl gratefully agrees, and after some convincing, Tim is brought around as well, though he’s still very reluctant. Christie, taking advantage of Tim’s illiteracy and simple-mindedness, snows him with all of his “medical knowledge,” and because he’s planning to kill Beryl (of course), he makes sure to plant the seed before the proposed procedure takes place, claiming that one in ten women die during the operation. He also throws some subtle victim-blaming in there too, stating that had they come to him for the abortion earlier, he could have performed it with no risk of death at all. Poor, confused Tim completely falls for it.

The day for Christie’s planned crime arrives, but almost like a grotesque comedy of errors, several things conspire to prevent him from doing his thing. First, his wife Ethel, who he tries to convince to go to his office to tell them he’s sick and won’t be coming in, resists a bit, asking why she can’t just call the office. He then has to make up a story that there are some important papers that she has to take with her, so she grudgingly toddles off. Then, just as he’s gathering his murder kit and cup of tea and heading for the stairs, a pair of contractors arrive to fix that roof on the outhouse that he’d been complaining about. At first he’s thinking of calling the whole thing off, but after being assured that the workmen will likely be remaining outside, he decides to go ahead with it.

Exit poor Beryl, who is gassed, raped, and strangled, just like the woman back in 1944. After the deed is done, Beryl’s friend shows up and starts banging at the flat door, causing Christie a few minutes of terror, but eventually the house quiets down again and he sets about the second stage of his plan.

When Tim arrives home from work, Christie informs him that the worst has happened, and that Beryl has died during the operation. Tim is absolutely shocked and inconsolable, and Christie further twists the knife by blaming their delayed attendance to the pregnancy, as well as the pills Beryl had been taking beforehand, for her death. Then, through a series of seemingly logical steps, Christie is able to convince the benighted Tim that both of them should simply dispose of Beryl’s body down the manhole out front, because if they report her death to the police, Christie will get in trouble for performing the abortion and Tim will be arrested for knowing and consenting to the procedure, making him an accessory.

Suffice it to say that it all goes very badly for Tim, who skips town at Christie’s suggestion, leaving his baby daughter behind, supposedly in the care of a childless couple Christie knows. In reality, Christie strangles the baby after Tim is gone, and when Tim later confesses to helping dispose of Beryl’s body, he is horrified to discover that Christie has killed his daughter as well, and is pinning it on him. When Tim goes on trial, he attempts to tell the court what really happened, but John Christie gives very calm, rational testimony that convinces the jurors that Tim is the guilty one. So Tim is executed, and Christie is free another three years, in which he kills four more women, including his wife Ethel after she starts to become suspicious. He isn’t found out until a new tenant moves into the Rillington Place flat and accidentally uncovers a crawlspace behind a kitchen wall that conceals several corpses.

Though the subject matter of 10 Rillington Place is bone-chilling and unpleasant in the extreme, the fantastic performances, particularly those of Richard Attenborough and John Hurt, really make this one a mesmerizing watch. It’s grim and horrifying and tragic, but you can’t help being drawn into the story, even if you’re familiar with the details of the real case. I especially like the way the material is treated; the movie isn’t exploitative at all, and even though it doesn’t really give much insight into Christie’s pathology or the reasons why he did what he did, to me that made the movie even more disturbing, because you’re seeing Christie as his potential victims would have seen him, not knowing anything about his history or proclivities.

If you’re at all into British cinema and understated examinations of frightening real-life crimes, then this is one of the best movies of its type you’re ever likely to see, and it’s one that sadly doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore. Check it out; it’s well worth it. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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