The Banality of Evil:
10 Rillington Place
Johnny Restall examines Richard Fleischer's seminal 1971 British murder masterpiece, 10 Rillington Place...
The American director Richard Fleischer covered many different genres in a long and diverse career, from historical epics (The Vikings, 1958), to war films (Tora! Tora! Tora!, 1970), to science fiction (Fantastic Voyage, 1966).
He is however probably best remembered for three pioneering, sober, and detailed films based on real-life murder cases. Compulsion (1959) presents a thinly fictionalised version of Leopold and Loeb, whose crime also inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). The self-explanatory The Boston Strangler (1968) covers the grim spree of Albert De Salvo and his eventual capture and psychological breakdown. For me, his masterpiece is the third of these: 1971’s 10 Rillington Place.
The film’s forensic, quasi-documentary intentions are established immediately by the opening text: “This is a true story. Whenever possible, the dialogue has been based on official documents.” As the words appear, an air raid siren is heard, establishing both period and imminent threat. The sound blends into John Dankworth’s sparely used score, unexpected swells of harp aptly suggesting frenzy and disturbance beneath the austere woodwind surface, as the credits play over the Rillington Place street sign.
Adapted by Clive Exton from Ludovic Kennedy’s crusading non-fiction book of the same name, 10 Rillington Place expertly tells the bleak story of English serial killer John Reginald Christie (Richard Attenborough), and the terrible miscarriage of justice created by his crimes. Please note that, as Christie remains infamous, this piece will include spoilers (as I’m assuming many readers will at least be aware of the basic historical facts). I am also going to confine my analysis solely to the version of events portrayed onscreen, rather than discussing discrepancies or omissions compared to the real case.
The film is resolutely unglamorous, its depressed post-World War II setting feeling painfully authentic and lived-in. Indeed, such was the commitment to realism that the actual Rillington Place was used for external shots and the staircase, shortly before being demolished, with interior rooms shot in the studio. Denys Coop’s superbly unobtrusive, naturalistic cinematography records a drab, run-down everyday world, where everything seems to be a shade of greyish brown. There is almost grim humour in Christie’s puffed-up pride when showing off the profoundly miserable upstairs flat to let at No. 10 to the ill-fated Timothy and Beryl Evans (John Hurt and Judy Geeson). Even without his stifling presence, it is a grimy little room in an exhausted, shabby London.
Unfortunately, despite Timothy’s obvious exaggerations about his income, the Evans’ are in no financial situation to decline the accommodation, setting the story’s hideous events in motion. As we already know from the opening scene, set a few years earlier in 1944, Christie is a murderous deviant preying on women, and it is immediately clear what he has in mind for Beryl behind his pompous, priggish exterior, from the furtive look he takes at her backside as she ascends the stairs to see the flat.
The dull, claustrophobic house almost becomes an extension of Christie, closing in on the doomed couple (denied even the use of the scrappy back garden beyond the outside toilet by their controlling neighbour). In a series of increasingly uncomfortable and unnerving encounters, Christie corners Beryl, forcing her into his confidence with his horribly solicitous fake concern, his endless offers of cups of tea a masterclass in passive-aggressive manipulation. So thick is the atmosphere of the film, you can almost taste the tepid, dishwatery beverages he proffers.
With its fierce attention to detail, the film dissects the repression, hypocrisy and sheer penny-pinching meanness of post-war English life. Despite the active role played by women in WWII, they remain largely second-class citizens. Geeson’s Beryl, striving pitifully for a better life in the face of grinding poverty and lack of opportunity, is overruled by her husband in her choice of flat, and tolerates his unreasonable rages and melancholy. Christie uses his position as older neighbour to intrude and persuade the couple to accept the non-existent “medical experience” he claims to have (from his service as a wartime policeman), the illegality of abortion giving licence to ghouls like him to exploit desperate women. His own wife Ethel (Pat Heywood) suspects his activities, but, alone, poor, and friendless, seems to know that no one will take her seriously. Her one small act of rebellion (the understated retort, “I know where you should be”) costs her life. He subtly undermines the gullible Timothy too, affecting a certain ‘man of the house’ intimacy with him, knowing the illiterate Evans will never know his “medical textbooks” are no such thing, and using his dubious wartime authority to convince the terrified man to run away after Beryl’s “abortion” turns fatal at Christie’s murderous hands.
On the surface, the film would seem a close cousin to Hitchcock’s almost-contemporary Frenzy (1972). Both feature stranglers who attack women, portray a changing but deeply sexist society, and are set in a grey, unattractive London. A comparison of their approach to their murder scenes sets them in stark contrast, however. The interruptions to Christie’s assault on Beryl could have been played with Hitchcock’s fondness for pushing the audience into the killer’s shoes, but Fleischer never dilutes the queasily intimate horror with black humour or stretches the moment to increase the suspense. The murders in 10 Rillington Place are intensely disturbing, but achieve their effect without being unnecessarily explicit. They entirely avoid the leering tone of Brenda’s killing in Frenzy, and the film seems far less ambivalent in its attitude to the fates of its female characters.
Another crucial difference is that, while Frenzy’s lead is wrongfully suspected of being the killer, he is eventually delivered at the film’s conclusion. No such reprieve came the way of the tragically naïve Timothy Evans. His execution for Christie’s crime forms one of the key scenes in 10 Rillington Place, with both Attenborough and Geeson acknowledging that they were drawn to the project due to its implicit criticism of capital punishment. The sequence drew on advice from Albert Pierrepoint, one of Britain’s last professional hangmen, and remains shockingly abrupt and cold – within just 30 seconds, Evans is marched from his cell, hooded, placed in the noose, and hung.
Hurt is perfectly cast as Evans, his fretful face and haunted eyes like a rabbit in headlights, totally out of his depth and overtaken by events. He stands no chance against the snobbery of the English court witheringly depicted in the film. His illiteracy, his exaggerations, and his otherness (as a working-class Welshman) cause his protests of innocence to be entirely dismissed. The well-spoken doctors of the medical board patronise him as “a primitive sort of creature” and “not an unpleasing little fellow”. Though Christie is by no means upper class, his war service and his fawning obsequiousness establish him as a trustworthy patriot in the blinkered eyes of the Judge and jury (despite Evans’ defence eviscerating him over his past convictions for dishonesty and violence).
It is notable that Christie’s crimes are only finally brought to light by immigrants, making use of his former home. A new underclass, using a neglected flat which literally stinks of death, and clearly has not been investigated with due care by either the police or the landlord, they are forced to do the dirty work of a complacent establishment and uncover the bodies flimsily hidden behind a wallpapered alcove. When Christie himself is finally captured, it seems to be more by chance than design, a passing policeman initially taking him for an ‘undesirable’ vagrant needing to be moved on. It is a damning indictment of ignorance, snobbery and neglect.
While the entire cast give sterling performances, the film is inevitably dominated by Attenborough’s Christie. His work here is extraordinary, a wholly convincing portrait of a petty, dull, homicidal little hypocrite, an embodiment of the banality of evil. The quiet, flat voice Attenborough uses perfectly worms its way into the memory (and presumably has a fan in Reece Shearsmith, who has used a strikingly similar tone in several of his roles). His expressions and mannerisms are unforgettable; forever twitching the curtains like a respectable busy-body, concerned what the neighbours will think about the arguing Evans’, oozing clammy familiarity with his cups of tea and “cosy” turns of phrase, like an insidious infection that cannot be shaken. Even as his luck runs out and he finds himself in a hostel, he remains pompous and self-regarding, slyly bragging about being “in all the papers a few years back”, and reacting with a grotesque show of wounded dignity when his fellow unfortunates take no interest in his boasts.
The film closes with Christie’s breathing filling the soundtrack, as the closing titles tell of his execution and Evans’ posthumous pardon. The heavy breathing is perhaps the most obviously horror-esque touch in what is otherwise an impeccably restrained examination of a real murderer and his society. Somewhat surprisingly, it seems to me to foreshadow the final sounds of John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween. While the intentions behind the two films could not be more different (one a realistic true-life horror making a passionate case against injustice and execution, the other having no pretensions to be anything other than a brilliantly made fictional thriller), the conclusions of both suggest that their killers have polluted their respective landscapes, psychologically smearing the locations of their crimes. That the sour breath of 10 Rillington Place is so overwhelmingly pungent and haunting is testament to the power and skill with which it tells its sorry tale.
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