More highly regarded these days than when it was released in 1971, Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place is a grimly efficient treatment of a once-notorious case—the story of London serial killer John Christie and his neighbor, Timothy Evans, the hapless sub-literate who took the fall by confessing to the murder of his own wife and child.
10 Rillington Place is not without its own fetishism. Fleischer—a prolific, largely impersonal director of crime and adventure films, mainly for Twentieth Century Fox—made several movies based on infamous murders, notably The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), Compulsion (1958), and The Boston Strangler (1968). His fascination is apparent. 10 Rillington Place, which immediately proclaims itself “a true story,” was largely shot, with an appropriately sober brown palette, on a dreary street—the actual, albeit by then renamed, Rillington Place—in a drab row house mirroring the one wherein Christie interred the bodies of nine women.
Evil is born in darkness: Having passed himself off as a paramedic during a mid-wartime blackout, solicitous Mr. Christie (Richard Attenborough) gives a female acquaintance the “treatment”—dousing her with kitchen gas, raping and strangling her, and burying her corpse out back. The action then jumps ahead five years to usher in some new tenants, the luckless young Evans couple (John Hurt and Judy Geeson) and their baby daughter. There’s increasingly violent bickering; Mrs. Evans is pregnant, and creepy Mr. Christie offers to perform the “termination.”
In the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fleischer created the scariest ever Disney monster. Attenborough is comparable, playing the prim, repressed killer with a single, quizzically pursed expression and an insinuating sibilant voice that drips like poison into your ear. Hurt, meanwhile, struggles manfully to make his character’s stupidity credible.
More plodding than suspenseful, 10 Rillington Place is a sort of criminal procedural. Most of the emphasis is put on Christie’s modus operandi, although given the killer’s fastidious personality, the movie occasionally verges on dark comedy. Fleischer, however, was no Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately. (The Master was also fascinated by Christie, describing him for his biographer Donald Spoto as “a bald, mild little man, very calm,” who was only potent when “strangling a woman while he was having sex with her,” and gleefully adding that, after hiding the corpse in a cupboard or under the floorboards, “he went on living there with all those bodies!” )
Fleischer eliminates some lurid details in the Christie story and makes the abusive Evans a more sympathetic character. Christie was clearly a multiple murderer, although even after he was nailed, there were some—including the judge reviewing the case—who never entirely believed in Evans’s absolute innocence in his wife’s demise. Still, the belated public revulsion inspired by Evans’s conviction, based on testimony given in court by the actual killer, and Evans’s subsequent execution, helped end capital punishment in the U.K. It was as a tract against the death penalty that 10 Rillington Place was initially understood in the U.S., although there’s another charged social issue that figures nearly as powerfully in the movie.
Opening 18 months before the Supreme Court would rule on Roe v. Wade, 10 Rillington Place not only features some relatively frank discussion of abortion, but is openly sympathetic to a woman’s reasons for wanting one. Small wonder, then, that the movie’s equivalent of a PG rating caused the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures to angrily withdraw its support for Hollywood’s then-new voluntary film-rating system.