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

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.