(Warning: this review contains spoilers)
A young couple, Timothy (John Hurt) and Beryl Bates (Judy Geeson), move into a pair of third-story rooms with their baby daughter in a house owned by mild-mannered milquetoast John Reginald Christie (Richard Attenborough). It’s rough sledding for the Bates’, however—Tim, who’s unable to read or write, barely manages to eke out a living as a van driver and their financial forecast doesn’t get any rosier when Beryl announces that she’s great with child. Beryl, acting out of more practical than moral concerns, confides in Christie about her situation and he agrees—boasting of his medical knowledge—to perform a “termination,” thereby averting any foreboding financial crisis. Unbeknownst to the Bates’, their downstairs neighbor harbors a dark secret—he’s a necrophiliac and serial killer, having dispatched several other young and elderly women in the past and burying them in his backyard. So when Christie performs his “procedure,” he gasses Beryl (with nitrous oxide) and then strangles her in order to have sex…resulting in a tragedy that soon threatens to engulf her grief-stricken husband.
Based on real-life incidents that occurred between 1949 and 1953—and chronicled in a book by author Ludovic Kennedy, an anti-death penalty advocate—10 Rillington Place (1971) is an unsettling and underseen little chiller that is as effective as a punch to the breadbasket thanks to a superb script by Clive Exton and equally fine direction from American film director Richard Fleischer. The story of the Bates-Christie case—in which an innocent man (Evans) is hanged for two murders he did not commit—has an enormous amount of relevance today in so much as the subject of the death penalty is once again on the debate agenda with the recent revelation that the Lone Star State may have executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, in 2004 after Willingham was convicted for the alleged murder of his two children in an arson fire in 1991. In the film, the death penalty angle is downplayed a bit from the book but still manages to raise troubling questions as to whether such a practice should be continued in light of the fallibility in applying the punishment by the State.
The performances in Place are first-rate. Movie buffs who remember Lord Attenborough as stiff-upper-lip Squadron Leader Roger “Mr. X” Bartlett (The Great Escape) or grandpa-like scientific entrepreneur John Hammond (Jurassic Park) will be blown away by his turn as Christie, whose soft-spoken, Clark Kentian manner belies a genuine monster unworthy of any sort of sympathy or consideration. It’s admittedly a one-note performance—but then the real-life Christie was a one-note individual; Attenborough, however, takes the time to introduce an interesting facet or two into the character—his most curious scene occurring when Evans is sentenced to swing for the murders he committed (both Beryl and their baby daughter) and he (Christie) breaks down in court. (The most heinous characteristic of Christie the killer is that he never demonstrated any remorse or regret for the murder of the Bates couple’s baby.)
But it’s John Hurt’s movie all the way, as the veteran actor is able to get us on the side of a man whose dire predicament erases many of Evans’ other off-putting characteristics: he’s an inveterate liar (“storifying” is what he calls it) and a bit of a thug, frequently getting into verbal and physical rows with his better half. Although you can certainly make a solid argument that Evans acted with complicity in regards to Beryl’s murder and should have been appropriately punished, he was not, in a physical sense, responsible for her murder or that of his child’s. What convicted Evans was a signed confession he made to the police; a document which, in light of the man’s lack of formal education and low intelligence quotient, scarcely seemed to possess any kind of validity at the time of the trial. Despite his unattractive qualities, Evans is played by Hurt as an individual completely saturated with grief at the loss of his wife…and upon learning of the baby’s murder he is most assuredly buried like a camel underneath a big straw stack. (Hurt’s physical appearance will also cause a jaw or two to drop—the actor was thirty at the time he made the picture, but he barely looks a day over 21.)
I first caught Place on the Encore Mystery Channel about ten years ago, and in revisiting it this afternoon was surprised that my initial impression of the film had changed somewhat—I remembered it as being a particularly gruesome film, with a higher-than-average graphic violence content. Maybe this is a testament to the impact the movie had on me at the time—a second viewing demonstrates that the violence was mostly in my imagination; the audience only seeing two of the actual murders onscreen. (I should stress, however, that the subject matter still remains unpleasant.) Director Fleischer obviously picked up a trick from The Master of Suspense (Hitchcock) in making Place; the scene where Christie croaks Beryl Evans is loaded with palpable suspense—but at the same time, he’s able to create a miniscule moment of sympathy for the murderer in that he stands a chance of getting caught (like Norman Bates in Psycho, disposing of Janet Leigh’s ride)…and we perversely root for the man to get away with his grisly crime. The other memorable scene in Place occurs after Christie convinces Evans to leave London and lay low for a while (he suggests Tim tell friends and acquaintances that he and the wife are on holiday) and when Tim expresses concern about his little girl, Christie assures him he can find a home for the foundling with some friends of his in neighboring East Acton. Christie has gone back to bed, but when the baby starts crying he tells his wife Ethel (Pat Heywood) he’ll deal with the matter—and the camera follows him as he climbs the stairs to the third floor…with a suit tie clutched in his left hand.