Skip to main content

I know where you should be.



10 Rillington Place
(1971)

This adaptation of Ludovic Kennedy’s book (yes, the Did You See…? presenter) about notorious serial killer John Christie is a gripping, low-key affair. It retains an air of authenticity by firmly rooting itself in the mundanity of everyday life, and thanks to a transformative performance from Richard Attenborough.

Attenborough makes Christie outwardly normal and at once sinister. There is little to single him out as sociopath; he is soft-spoken (like a creepy Alan Bennett) and only slightly off in demeanour. He’s just a small, balding man with a bad back and a devoted wife. Christie gassed and strangled his victims over a 10-year period between 1943 and 1953, but the case is at least as well known for as the wrongful conviction that contributed towards the repeal of the death penalty in the UK.

American director Richard Fleischer supports Sir Dickie’s fine work with commendable restraint. Fleischer’s journeyman career would not obviously lead him to this kind of material. He was responsible for 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings, Fantastic Voyage and Doctor Doolittle. Most likely it was his account of another serial killer, The Boston Strangler (starring Tony Curtis), three years earlier, that got him the gig. Fleischer’s subdued, brooding direction ensures the picture linger in the mind. It was made during a period when restraint in depicting sex and violence was no longer necessary (just look at the rather distasteful relish Hitchcock takes in the following year’s Frenzy), but Fleischer has no interest in reveling in Christie’s crimes. There’s perhaps one misjudged moment, where Fleischer cuts from Evans’ execution to Christie nursing his bad back; it plays as a bad taste comedy punchline (while there is considerable irony at play in the film, particularly in the depiction of the gullibility of Christie’s victims, at no point is anything else played for laughs and rightly so).

Over the years, the serial killer subgenre has become ever more glossily overcooked and lacking in depth. The crazed cartoonishness of the Michael Myers and Jason Voorhes wave of masked maniacs gave way to cultured masterminds of carnage when Thomas Harris introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world. He allied a larger-than-life psycho with methodical thoroughness in depicting forensic science. But accounts of actual cases have generally been lacking. David Fincher probably did it best with Zodiac, although by necessity an unsolved case must be entirely from the perspective of detective work. Rillington Place comes a decade after Psycho and Peeping Tom, and arrived in a post Moors Murders, post-Manson landscape. It tells of events during the 1940s, but the surrounding urban decay and hardship seem topical to the coming decade.

The feeling of authenticity is no doubt aided by the decision to film at the actual location (along with No.6 on the same street), but it’s arguably above and beyond the call of duty in striving for verisimilitude.

The trio of main supporting players are all impressive. John Hurt’s Timothy Evans, the tenant sentenced and hanged for murdering his wife and child (he was pardoned 12 years later), is a study in the dim and impressionable. Judy Geeson plays his wife Beryl and Pat Heywood is Ethel Christie; her depiction of gradually dawning realisation is subtle and believable.

Fleischer’s film concentrates on the timeline of the Evans’ tenancy, which means that the trial of Christie isn’t covered, and his prior acts only briefly by way of a wartime scene-setter. I’d have liked a more complete account; aside from a scene where Christie boasts of the media coverage of the trial and his involvement, there is little sense of the wider impact of the case (the film doesn’t even clarify how many victims there were). Hurt was rightly nominated for a BAFTA for his performance, but it’s a glaring omission that Sir Dickie went unrecognised. It’s the performance of his career.

****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).