Overlooked & Underseen: 10 Rillington Place (1971)
In the past few months, my husband has been watching a lot of crime shows on Netflix. They run the gamut from things like Forensic Files to Mindhunter. He started watching a UK show called Murder Maps (2015) which takes a look at notorious crimes in and around London from around the 1880s through the 1950s. If you know anything about me, you know I love murder and I adore the UK so I became pretty obsessed with the show. As the show continued through its current 3 seasons, I said to him “You know, there are a few really good movies out there based on the people highlighted on this show. I think I might write about them.” And so here we are. For the next three weeks, I’m going to highlight films based on some of the notorious murder cases that happened in post-war London. First up, we’re looking at serial killer John Christie in the 1971 movie 10 Rillington Place, directed by Richard Fleischer.
John Christie (Richard Attenborough) is a very quiet and unassuming man. He lives in the bottom flat of 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill with his wife Ethel (Pat Heywood). Christie is soft-spoken, friendly, and, well, a stone-cold murderer. The film opens in 1944 with Christie performing some sort of breathing treatment on his neighbor, promising her that it will help her with her bronchitis. It becomes clear to us and to the victim that helping her to breathe is the last thing on Christie’s mind.
We flash forward to 1949, the Christies are still living in 10 Rillington Place. John has let his 3rd floor flat to Timothy and Beryl Evans (John Hurt and Judy Geeson) along with their infant daughter Geraldine. It’s clear the young couple are having issues and Christie is all up in their business trying to find out what going on. He realizes Mrs. Evans is pregnant again and knows she’s tried to force herself to have an abortion. Christie tells her he’s done plenty of “terminations” in the past and that he trained to be a doctor before the war. Because she’s desperate to not be pregnant, she’s willing to trust him. Mr. Evans, however, isn’t so sure. He doesn’t want his wife to get rid of the pregnancy and certainly doesn’t want Christie involved. He’s easily persuaded, though (which will be his downfall, sadly), and the “surgery” is set.
Christie’s medical procedures, no matter what he tells his “patients”, consist of him coming up with a liquid mixture of chemicals that when breathed in (by him hooking up a tube from the gas line into the jug of liquid and another tube hooked up to a cardboard box mask) render the patient unconscious. That is, after several terrifying moments when the women realize they can’t breathe very well and that they probably won’t wake up again. After the women are out, Christie proceeds to rape and strangle them. Although this movie doesn’t go into the motivations behind why Christie raped and murdered his victims in this way, the show Murder Maps does. Apparently, Christie was unable to become sexually aroused unless his victims where unconscious. He derived more pleasure by killing them as he was raping them. A truly repellent man.
When Evans comes home from work, Christie tells him the abortion he performed didn’t work and Mrs. Evans is dead. Evans is beside himself with grief. He wants to call the police but Christie tells him he better not or else he will be the one in trouble, not Christie. He makes Evans help him dispose of the body and convinces him to leave London and go back to Wales without his baby. He tells Evans that he and his wife will take care of her. Evans leaves and tells people in Wales his wife went on holiday. Back in London, people start looking for Mrs. Evans and Christie is happy to help the police in any way he can so that the finger is pointed at Mr. Evans for killing his wife.
The miscarriage of justice that happened in this case is certainly a dark period in English history. Timothy Evans did go on trial for killing his family. Because he told several different stories about what happened, including actually confessing to killing her, when he finally told the truth that Christie had killed her (although he thought it was from performing an abortion), no one believed him. Christie’s testimony was instrumental in Evans being found guilty of murder, which meant, back in the 1950s, that you were hanged. Eventually, Christie was caught for all of his murders but not before an innocent man had paid for it with his life.
10 Rillington Place is a bit of a strange film. It’s very cold, very unemotional, and very matter of fact. It’s not fancy, there are no frills. It’s almost like a documentary. As I said above, it doesn’t go into any motives for Christie’s murdering spree. It just shows him methodically going through the medical pretense on his way to the rape and murder of these women. The film also assumes the viewer is familiar with John Christie and the case so right from the opening scene, the viewer (whether they know the story or not) already knows what kind of a man Christie is. Because of the straightforwardness of the film, I can see why some people would be put off but this also means that none of the rapes/murders are sensationalized. In fact, we don’t really see any of them.
Richard Attenborough is great as John Christie. At first, I wasn’t happy with him in the role because, although they tried to make him look like Christie as much as possible, physically he just didn’t seem right. He won me over in the end. The real star here, though, is John Hurt. He is terrific. Although he’d been in a few movies prior to this, I think 10 Rillington Place put him on the map. He received critical acclaim for this role and it’s well deserved. If nothing else, you should watch this movie just for John Hurt. He’s that good. Rest in peace.