10 Rillington Place (1971)

*. Ugh. I mean that in a good way. Or sort of. What I mean is that this would be a depressing enough movie as it is, but the fact that it’s based, quite closely, on a true story makes it that much worse.
*. Then there’s its look. Ugh again. Nothing was quite as depressing and worn-out as post-War urban England. It had a grime and squalor all its own, with a quality of misery about it that even the wreckage of American ghettoes later in the same century never quite equaled. Christie’s apartment building here looks like it could be the setting for one of Pinter’s bleaker efforts. Indeed, they might have just taken over the sets from William Friedkin’s 1968 production of The Birthday Party.
*. The connection to Pinter highlights another point I want to flag. The dirty look of 10 Rillington Place (the movie) is sometimes referred to as “documentary” but I don’t think it is. This movie doesn’t look at all like a documentary but rather like a stage play. I believe part of it was actually shot on location at the actual street address (with number 7 standing in for number 10), but all of it, even the backyard, has the feel of a set.
*. Today such a look has an almost exotic, poverty-porn air about it. And everyone looks so damned unhealthy. Or unhealthy and damned. From John Hurt’s blotchy skin, unconcealed behind any make-up, to Richard Attenborough’s macrocephalic marshmallow head that makes him seem almost deformed. It’s fitting that Christie is a phoney doctor. Nobody is getting better in this corner of England.
*. It’s a political movie, made in protest of capital punishment. Or at least that’s how it was understood in the U.S., since capital punishment was abolished in the UK in 1969. It also takes a more liberal line on abortion. And yet, it’s not a movie that goes for the gut or indulges in clichés in this regard. Hurt’s Timothy Evans is certainly a pathetic figure, but even given how dim he is after his wife’s murder he behaves in such a bizarre manner he’s hard to fully sympathize with him. Or is sympathy even what is being asked for? Christie is an ogre, but we never get any idea what makes him tick and in his final days alone in the flophouse he does come across as a sad case. Still, I don’t think we can feel any sympathy for him either.
*. I like how difficult a movie it is. The problem I have with 10 Rillington Place is that while I can see what it’s trying to do, and I like what it’s trying to do, I just don’t think it does it very well.

*. For example, I wanted so much more done with that central relationship between Evans and Christie. It’s fine that they played it as understated. The real Christie claimed that he couldn’t speak in a loud or barely even normal voice because he’d been gassed during the First World War, so Attenborough maintains a hushed whisper throughout. And Hurt plays poor Evans as slow as he apparently was. But I felt there were deeper layers to get at with both. Nothing is done to explain Christie’s rage (he was impotent, in the regular way), or to help understand Evans’s false confessions.
*. But then perhaps this was a conscious decision. We have a tendency to romanticize or at least Hollywood-ize serial killers. Most of them are simply cruel low-lifes, and not all that smart. Hannibal Lecter is pure movie hokum. The reality is more like the whiny man-baby Christie that we see here. And serial killer victims are no more charismatic. They tend to be tragically marginal and vulnerable figures. The casting of Judy Geeson as Beryl Evans is a false step. She’s a bit too much the movie star. As Vincent Canby put it in his New York Times review, “The problem with the film is very much the problem with the actual case, which involved small, unimaginative people.”
*. Those freeze frames at the end were a thing in movies for a very short time. I have no idea why. And it looks even worse here with the blurring and the heavy breathing. What does that breathing signify? It may be an echo of Evans gasping into the bag over his head just before he’s hanged, or it may reprise Christie’s own excited breathing when committing his crimes. Either way, I’m not sure what the point is.
*. 10 Rillington Place was released to mixed reviews but has gone on to acquire a minor cult status. I think this has been for perverse reasons: its ugly look, “small, unimaginative” leads, and eschewing of suspense in what is a real-life Hitchcock plot if ever there was one. On this most recent viewing I even realized that I’d had a scene from Frenzy mixed up with it in my memory.
*. A movie that so defiantly dares you not to like it deserves some special consideration. This much I’ll grant it, but I can’t help thinking that it should be better than it is, or at least something more. It’s worth seeing once, but that should be enough.

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