10 Rillington Place (1971)
There are many movies and TV shows that glamorize serial killers as evil geniuses that weave complex webs and stay one step ahead of the law for years as the body count piles up. The truth is more along the lines of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer than it is The Silence of the Lambs. There are some undoubtedly reaching supervillain status, but the average killer relies on a combination of being able to hide behind a respectable facade and police incompetence. A bit of isolation, usually in a place where police don't want to be, doesn't hurt.
John Christie was certainly no genius. He was, in fact, a violent thug with a penchant for prostitutes (their usual services, not murdering them, although one of his later victims did work in the profession) who managed to somehow keep many of his baser instincts hidden for awhile after being released from prison, but for some unknown reason finding a new hobby in murder as World War II raged on and the bombs dropped on London. He managed to somehow hide this from his wife, at least until he killed her as well and buried her in the floorboards.
The most infamous of Christie's deeds, though, was the murder of Beryl Evans and her baby Geraldine in 1949, and his successful job of framing her illiterate husband Timothy for the killings. The result, when Christie's real nature became apparent, was public outcry that eventually led to the abolition of the death penalty in the United Kingdom.
In 1944, John Christie (Richard Attenborough) is working as a police officer to help keep order during the bombings. He lures Muriel Eady (Phyllis MacMahon) to his apartment in 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, London. Promising a breathing treatment, he instead knocks her out with carbon monoxide from the flat's gas lines, and disposes of the body in his garden.
Five years later, Timothy (John Hurt) and Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson) arrive with their baby Geraldine looking for a flat. Timothy has a habit of telling tall tales, as well as a habit of living above his means and drinking away most of his paycheck. While he and his wife Ethel (Pat Heywood) are renting the second-floor flat to the Evanses, he starts to take advantage of Timothy's slow nature and sew marital discord. The fights often wake up the neighbors, and even result in a police call.
Things get even worse when Beryl tells Timothy that she is pregnant again. Barely able to take care of Geraldine, Beryl decides that she wants to abort. Timothy is initially against it, but Christie convinces the couple that he was in training to be a doctor before the war but had to give it up. He offers to perform the procedure, but warns Timothy that it has a high fatality rate. When the day comes, Christie acts as if to start the procedure, but murders Beryl in the same way he did Muriel. When Timothy returns, he gives his condolences, but when his lodger decides to contact the police he discourages him with threats of jail time or possible execution due to being an accessory. Christie offers to take care of the body by disposing it in a drain in front of the building, while convincing Timothy to go away for a few days while he sends the baby away to a couple he knows.
While Timothy goes to Wales to visit relatives, Christie kills Geraldine and stores both the mother and daughter's bodies in an outbuilding. Timothy, wracked with guilt, confesses to his wife's death to the local police, who contact London. While the body of his wife is not found in the drain, they eventually find it in the outbuilding along with Geraldine's. Despite Timothy obviously having no idea where the bodies were hidden, the police immediately accuse him and, due to his grief and not being too bright, he signs a confession. Ultimately, partially based on the testimony of Christie himself (despite cross-examination casting extreme doubt on his character), Timothy Evans is convicted of the murders and sentenced to hang.
Ethel soon becomes convinced that her husband was the true killer, and after a temporary arrangement of them sleeping in separate rooms she decides to move in with her family. Christie kills her and buries under the floorboards in the flat. This leave him free to hunt London for other victims, ultimately killing three other women and storing their bodies in an alcove that he covers over with wallpaper. After moving out of the flat, new renters move in and soon find the alcove, exposing Christie and leading to his arrest.
I am used to movies based on true stories taking a number of liberties, but 10 Rillington Place attempts to get much of it right. After Timothy's execution the time line gets a bit muddled, making it look like Ethel was murdered soon after. In truth, the couple remained together until December 1952, when he strangled her in bed. There were other lodgers after the Evanses, mainly minorities whom the couple was vocally against. The murders of the other three women all happened in early 1953. It was soon after he moved out, and the upstairs lodger was allowed to use Christie's kitchen by the real landlord, that the bodies were discovered. By July of that year he was swinging, by the hand of the same hangman that had executed Timothy Evans.
Some of the other truths of the case are understandably glossed over, such as the fact that Christie not only killed his victims but raped them (the adults, with his wife being the exception) while they were dying, or shortly after death. The height of police incompetence was such that they even overlooked that one of Muriel Eady's femurs was being used to prop up part of the garden fence.
Although Christie confessed to all the murders except Geraldine's, it is generally held that he was also responsible for that one and that Timothy Evans's trial and execution were a travesty of justice, largely due to character bias and general incompetence by the police. The British public, alerted that an innocent man had died, started questioning whether other innocent men had been put to death in the past.
This was how Richard Attenborough approached his portrayal of John Christie. He looked at the film as an indictment of the death penalty, and his quiet, reptilian performance has influenced the portrayal of serial killers ever since. The difference is that there is no attempt to romanticize Christie, nor make him sympathetic in any way. In the movie, as in real life, his avoidance of discovery, and his eventual outing, are all due to accidental circumstances. The soft-spoken portrayal was based on real life, where Christie claimed that exposure to mustard gas in World War One had left him temporarily blind and mute.
John Hurt portrays Timothy Evans as dull-witted and prone to outbursts of anger and violence, but not truly against Beryl or his daughter, even if he does make quite the racket. He is just the kind of man that someone like Christie could manipulate, since all he really needed was someone gullible that he could put in a difficult situation. Not only is he manipulated by Christie, but also by the justice system that should be helping him.
Judy Geeson is the one actress given a large amount of screen time, and she portrays Beryl as the sensible side of the couple. Still, she is not given much to do. None of the women really become damsels in distress until they realize what is going on, so there are no over-the-top hysterics. Despite Christie's strange demeanor, he had no trouble convincing women that he was harmless and trustworthy.
Despite the film's poster, this is not some attempt to sensationalize the killings, but is rather a straight true-crime movie that fudges a few of the facts in order to wrap things up a bit sooner. Although it was highly influential on other films that didn't treat the subject as tastefully, this stands as one of the few film portrayals of a real-life monster that is effective by simply laying out the truth before the audience.
10 Rillington Place (1971)
Time: 101 minutes
Starring: Richard Attenborough, John Hurt, Judy Geeson
Director: Richard Fleischer