10 Rillington Place is the story of real-life serial killer John Reginald Christie, who was hanged in 1953. That’s not a spoiler since we see Christie committing a murder within the first few minutes of the film.
In any case, when the film as made in 1970 audiences would certainly have known about the Christie case. The movie relies on the classic suspense technique of having the audience in on the secret while the characters in the film do not know what is going to happen next and have only partial knowledge of what has already happened.
The movie focuses on the most controversial of Christie’s murders, the one murder of which he may possibly have been innocent. In 1949 a young couple, Timothy and Beryl Evans, move into a flat in London. Christie and his wife are renting the downstairs flat. The Evans’ marriage is somewhat troubled. Timothy is illiterate, they have financial problems, and now there is a second baby on the way. They can barely afford one child. Beryl decides that getting rid of the baby is her only option, and Christie offers to help. It is a fateful decision.
The movie doesn’t really take advantage of the potentially most interesting aspect of the case, the doubts about the murders committed in 1949. The movie was based largely on Ludovic Kennedy’s book of the same title and Kennedy intended his book as an impassioned argument against the death penalty (this case actually did contribute to the abolition of capital punishment). To have focused on the doubts would have weakened his case. Whether it would have made a more interesting movie is more difficult to say. As it stands it’s still a very effective film.
There’s an overwhelming atmosphere of hopelessness and squalor, of people trapped in situations that are bad and can only get worse. The movie was shot partly in the actual locations where the murders took place, which makes a very creepy film even creepier.
Adding even further to the creepiness is Richard Attenborough’s performance as Christie. Lord Attenborough always did this kind of role supremely well and this is one of his finest achievements as an actor. John Hurt, as Timothy Evans, is almost as good. Judy Geeson as Beryl Evans could easily have been hopelessly overshadowed by these two powerhouse performances but to her credit she manages to be memorable and convincing. The incredibly high standard of acting is one of the film’s great strengths.
Director Richard Fleischer does a fine job as well, building the tension to almost unbearable levels at times.
While there’s no nudity the sexual nature of Christie’s crimes is emphasised very strongly, making this a very adult film. It’s a very unpleasant movie at times.
Considerable effort was clearly made to get the right period feel, and it pays off.
This is a movie that knows exactly what it wants to achieve, and it works like a well-oiled machine. Whatever reservations one might have about its historical accuracy, as a movie it’s almost impossible to fault.