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A simple and discrete procedure
A Uk region 2 DVD review of 10 RILLINGTON PLACE by Slarek
 

The following review deals with both the film and the true-life case on which it was based. There are some major spoilers, so those not familiar with the film or the case may want to skip to the technical part of the review by clicking here.

 

"Christie done it! I say Christie done it!"
Timothy Evans after being wrongly sentenced for murder

 

John Reginald Haliday Christie was a quiet and seemingly unassuming man. He lived with his wife and his back pain in the ground floor flat at 10 Rillington Place in London's Notting Hill Gate from 1938 to 1953. A special constable during World War Two, he had all the outward appearance of an ordinary, even mundane office worker in the years following the war. But Christie had a secret: every now and again he would lure a woman back to the house, gas her, and then rape and strangle her, not always in that order.

In 1949, 24-year-old Timothy Evans, his wife Beryl and their young baby moved in to the top floor flat above Christie. Evans was something of a fantasist, full of tales of a wealthy background and managerial employment positions that masked his own illiteracy and increasing financial woes. He and his wife argued loudly and frequently, and the news that Beryl was once again pregnant did little to improve their marital harmony. Enter John Christie, the kindly old gentleman from downstairs, and the offer to perform an (at the time illegal) abortion, an operation Christies uses as an excuse to murder and abuse Beryl. When Christie informs Evans that the procedure has failed and left Beryl dead, the young man is devastated, but soon finds that the official finger of guilt is pointing not at Christie, but at him.

The whole concept of the serial killer is a relatively new one, linked to improvements in detection techniques and a greater understanding of psychological disorders. Given that many of the most famous serial killer cases in recent history have been American, it is hardly surprising that the serial killer cinematic sub-genre has been largely Hollywood based. Though Michael Mann's Manhunter achieved cult status, it was Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs that really kicked things off, and if many of the subsequent films have proved somewhat sub-standard, we can still be thankful for the likes of David Fincher's Se7en and John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. And the genre's popularity with an adult audience has seen it spread to incorporate female serial killers (a rarity in real life as well as the movies) with Monster, and even spread to the Far East to detail Korea's first recorded serial killer with Memories of Murder.

Britain, of course, has been dealing with real-life cases for over a century now, and still holds the dubious claim of having the most famous unsolved serial killer case of all in Jack the Ripper. But the Ripper's anonymity and possible aristocratic connections have always leant the case a sense of perverted glamour. The case of John Christie was anything but glamorous, the very essence of what became so frightening about the whole concept of the serial killer – that there was, on the surface, nothing extraordinary about him, nothing to signal to those around him just what he was capable of. In a memorable halloween episode of Roseanne, daughter Darlene was questioned by her mother over her lack of a halloween costume for their trick-or-treat trip around the neighbourhood. "This IS my costume," she informed her. "I'm a serial killer. They look like everyone else." It is this very sense of the everyday that makes 10 Rillington Place so chillingly effective.

Director Richard Fleischer must intially have seemed an odd choice to direct a small British film about a real-life murderer. An American filmmaker who had once specialised in briskly paced B-movies such as Armoured Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952), he had graduated to larger scale projects like The Vikings (1958) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and had even dabbled with science fiction and family films with Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Doctor Doolittle (1967). But in 1968 he had also made the controversial The Boston Strangler, a dark thriller based on the case of real-life American serial killer Albert DeSalvo, providing him with most credible credentials for the move to Rillington Place. Fleischer's approach is determinedly low-key from the start, his calmly observant camera and minimalist use of music – even the most dramatic scenes play with almost no musical accompaniment at all – matching the drabness of the surroundings and the surface ordinariness of the characters. Fleischer never ups the pace to artificially create tension, he doesn't need to – the events themselves provide all the drama that he could wish for and he lets them speak for themselves to extraordinary effect.

His greatest assets here are his devinely chosen cast. As Christie, Richard Attenborough gives one of the performances of his career, a quietly terrifying study in creepy malevolence, delivering almost every line in a soft whisper and turning a simple glance into an intention to murder, and the offer of a cup of tea into a potential death sentence. Attenborough really is magnificent here, and it is for precisely such roles that he should be remembered, rather than his later turns as Santa Claus or the cheery John Hammond of Jurassic Park. Equally effective is John Hurt as Timothy Evans, here playing his professional victim role to the hilt, his fantasy-led bragging giving way to sudden but always convincing bursts of anger and explosive despair. He creates in Evans a character who is not necessarily likeable but is certainly sympathetic, whose simple-minded lack of awareness of the reality of his situation all but seals his own fate. Although essentially supporting roles, Judy Geeson and Pat Heywood both impress as Beryl Evans and Ethel Christie respectively – Beryl's terror at what is happening to her when she is being gassed by Christie is painfully real, and the moment when Ethel quietly says to her husband, "I know where you should be" carries with it a wealth of meaning and suggestion, and proves a fatal turning point in their relationship.

This underplayed approach gives rise to some genuinely skin-crawling moments: the appearance in the edge of frame of Christie's hand bearing a cup of tea as a prelude to murder; the extraordinary shot of Christie, his face wild-eyed and grimly determined, pulling on strangely angled ropes to strangle a body that is just out of frame; the chillingly realistic discovery of the bodies by a torch-bearing Rudolph Walker (now a regular on Eastenders); the soul-freezing look on Christie's face as he eyes the screaming Evans baby, one so weighted with intent that it tells us everything we need to know about his appalling intentions. Later on Fleischer is able to use our memory of the tools of Christie's trade to tone things down still further, cutting from Christie's hand holding a rope to him pulling up floorboards, knowing that the audience can fill in the gaps.

Succeeding handsomely as both a chiller and a historical drama, the film also scores as a social commentary, quietly condemning the whole concept of back-street abortion, but pulling no punches in its presentation of the death penalty, the monstrous fallibility of which this whole case stands as testament to. The hanging of Evans is handled with a horrifying and documentary-like realism (the sequence was supervised by real-life crown hangman Albert Pierrepoint, the very man responsible for hanging both Evans and Christie) that genuinely shocked me on my first viewing many years ago and still sends a cold shiver down my spine today, ending as it does on one of the most jarringly effective associative cuts in cinema history.

The film is an important reminder of how things have changed, but also how they have stayed the same. In a time when motives had to be clear and uncomplicated, Evans is convicted in part because no good reason can be offered for Christie's guilt in the matter, and by not showning the process of recording his confession (and remember, he was questioned on this immediately after being told of the death of his child), Fleischer leaves us to ponder on just how it was extracted. It may seem almost extraordinary that Christie's own wife could remain ignorant of his activities for so long and keep quiet about them once her suspicions were raised, but just ten years ago the case of Fred and Rosemary West showed that mass murder in suburbia really can go unnoticed for years. And lest we mock the medical ignorance of Christie's victims, we should remember that Harold Shipman was able to become the most prolific serial killer of all time precisely because of the trust people placed in his status as a General Practitioner.

It was journalist and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy, in his 1961 book 10 Rillington Place, who first brought to the public's attention the gross miscarriage of justice that had resulted in Evans' death, the almost preposterous suggestion that two stranglers could be living in the same house at the same time being just one of thirty-four unlikely co-incidences that he cited in defence of Evans' innocence. A group of Labour MPs demanded a fresh enquiry into the case be launched, and in 1966 the Brabin Report was published, suggesting that Evans probably did not kill his child after all, though it maintained that he had been responsible for the death of his wife. As it was the murder of the child that he had been hung for, Evans received a posthumous pardon. In his book Forty Years of Murder, crown pathologist Keith Simpson maintained that they had the right man in Evans. The general feeling is that, despite the pardon, the British Establishment remains stubbornly reluctant to admit its own appalling failings in this matter.

sound and vision

Framed at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is an absolutely first rate transfer given the age of the film – the picture is sharp, the contrast and colour bang-on and compression artefacts minimal, even though a fair number of scenes are set in shadow or poorly lit rooms. There are quite a few dust spots to be seen if you are looking for them, but they are fortunately small and are rarely distracting.

Whether the aspect ratio is the correct one is another matter – it never really feels wrong, but the Columbia logo that opens the film certainly looks cropped and the opening title itself is a little tight in frame. Given the film's age, an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 or, at a push, 1.66:1, seems likely, and TV cut-off can be an unforgiving beast. That aside, this is a very fine transfer that exceeded my own expectations of the disk.

Sound is the original mono, but is clear and free of hiss. Given the importance of dialogue and the subtle role played by music and sound effects, a remix would have been inappropriate and unnecessary.

extra features

Identifying itself as a special edition, this UK region 2 release from Columbia Tristar certainly has enough on board to quality.

First up is the option to play the film with an Introduction by Sir Richard Attenborough (1:29). Attenborough remains very proud of the film, which he believes remains important both as a social document and a work of entertainment. This is shot on video, framed 16:9 and anamorphically enhanced, and done in the same session as the following extra.

Interview with Sir Richard Attenborough (20:09) is, like the introduction, shot on 16:9 video and anamorphically enhanced, and divided into 11 chapters varying from just 22 seconds to 6 minutes in length. The interview covers the process of putting the film together, the involvement of director Richard Fleischer, filming on the actual Rillington Place locations (the street was renamed after the case and pulled down after the filming), and the unified view of those making the film that it should be a cry against capital punishment. Attenborough, as always, is a fascinating talker, like an old and knowledgeable uncle reminiscing on a particularly interesting part of his life. The best way by far to watch this is to select the 'play all' option and absorb it in one, uninterrupted sitting.

The John Hurt Commentary track is a real treat, nicely balancing factual information about the case and recollections of the shoot itself with anecdotal snippets about the actors, the crew, the studio, the filming of individual scenes and, in one enjoyable side-track, the nature of censorship at the time. Hurt has a wonderful voice and has strong memories of the filming and some very entertaining tales to tell, not least the revelation that real Guinness was used in the pub scene and that multiple takes on this sequence saw him get through about five pints, something he observes just would not happen now due to the "puritanical American influence." A hugely entertaining and informative track.

Fact File features both a chronology of events surrounding the case and a map of the ground floor flat in which Christie lived and concealed the bodies of his victims. Numbers indicate the locations of the victims, and selecting these gives the name of the victim, the year of their murder and a still from the film showing the location of their burial.

Filmographies feature film listings for Richard Attenborough, John Hurt, Judy Geeson and Richard Fleischer.

Finally Vintage Lobby Cards has 8 lobby cards from the film, reproduced at approximately half screen size.

summary

10 Rillington Place is a superb drama that you need no foreknowledge of the real case to appreciate. Atmospheric from the opening frames and downright disturbing in places, it is the complete flip-side of the more sensationalist serial killer films that Hollywood has something of a love-hate relationship with, and I'm including classier works such as Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs or David Fincher's Se7en. 10 Rillington Place never shouts at its audience – it doesn't have to – instead whispering in your ear in a manner guaranteed to get under your skin, thanks in no small part to its intelligent handling and terrific performances. As a social drama it really hits home, its ruthlessly direct presentation of both murder and capital punishment still having the power to make the blood run cold. The DVD presentation is excellent, and as the disk is already available at knock-down prices on-line it should be considered an essential purchase.

10 Rillington Place

UK 1971
106 mins
director
Richard Fleischer
starring
Richard Attenborough
John Hurt
Judy Geeson
Pat Heywood
Andre Morrell
Robert Hardy

DVD details
region 2 UK
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles .
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Introduction by Richard Attenborough
John Hurt commentary
Lobby cards
Fact files
Filmographies
distributor
Columbia Tristar
release date
Out now
review posted
4 February 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews