Since Richard Attenborough is best known to American audiences for directing Gandhi (1982), and for portraying the grandfatherly developer in Jurassic Park (1993), it’s a shock to see him playing a psycho in 10 Rillington Place, a methodical crime drama about a killer whose crime spree scandalized postwar England. Yet Attenborough commits wholeheartedly to the role of John Christie, a working-class nobody who manages a grimy apartment building and habitually slaughters young female tenants, burying the bodies in a small garden adjoining his building.
Directed by versatile but unstylish helmer Richard Fleischer, 10 Rillington Place matches several strong performances with persuasive physical details, creating a strong sense of everyday danger. The main focus is Christie’s relationship with his upstairs lodgers, struggling young couple Timothy John Evans (John Hurt) and Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson). Timothy is a simple man, illiterate and prone to angry outbursts, while Beryl is an unhappy housewife who knows she deserves more. When the couple becomes pregnant, they agree to an abortion but can’t afford to have the procedure done in a hospital. Their kindly downstairs neighbor Mr. Christie offers to help, claiming that he picked up medical knowhow during military service.
The considerable tension in 10 Rillington Place stems from the ease with which Christie contrives means of disguising his murders as accidents; furthermore, the movie takes on a more insidious layer of intrigue once Christie frames an innocent man for his crimes. 10 Rillington Place eventually transforms from a murder story to a legal thriller, and the tissue holding the picture together is Attenborough’s chilling performance as a sociopath determined to get away with murder. His work is complemented by the equally good acting of Geeson and Hurt; Geeson communicates her character’s believable dismay at a dead-end living situation, while Hurt transitions gracefully from the bravado of a man lording over his household to the terror of a naïf trapped by incredible circumstance.
Ultimately, 10 Rillington Place is as tragic as it is horrific, for while the picture doesn’t have many jump-out-of-your-seat jolts, the methodical way it illustrates Christie’s rampage demonstrates how easily an intelligent monster can hide in plain sight. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)
10 Rillington Place: GROOVY