This exceptional, disturbing film details the appalling crimes of the seemingly mild mannered and softly spoken John Christie, an infamous British serial killer from the 1940s and '50s who preyed upon vulnerable women, including prostitutes and those seeking illegal abortions, by raping and strangling them and then concealing their bodies in his ground floor flat and communal garden;
all of which went undetected until after Christie had murdered his own wife and moved out of Rillington Place. The majority of this film concerns the murders of Beryl Evans and her baby daughter Geraldine who lived in the top floor flat and the trial, conviction and hanging of her husband Timothy for the crimes. Christie was cross examined and gave evidence against his fellow tenant, and even though Christie's violent and criminal past was brought into account, Evans was still found guilty and executed. Due to the fact Number 10 was not properly investigated meant that four more women died in the years following the wrongful hanging of Evans, now widely regarded as the most serious miscarriage of justice in the immediate post-war years and a major contribution to the abolition of capital punishment in the 1960s.
It would be hard to overstate how well director Richard Fleischer and screenwriter Clive Exton (after Ludovic Kennedy's book) bring this story to the screen. The events are grotesque and upsetting but at no point does the film stray into melodrama or sensationalism - in fact the calmness and mundanity of the telling reflect the personality of their protagonist perfectly. This is in no small part thanks to the work of Richard Attenborough, surely giving his best screen performance - he barely raises his voice for the duration and maintains a chillingly plausible calm and terrible intelligence, the mask only slipping when committing his violent crimes. He is supported by another typically magnificent performance by John Hurt as Evans - a boastful but simple minded and illiterate Welshman,
easily manipulated and persuaded by Christie into concealing his wife's body and running away following the supposedly tragically botched abortion for fear of facing murder charges for consenting in the scheme. Hurt's grasp of Evans' lack of understanding, his confusion and naivety is heartbreaking; the scene where the police inform him and accuse him of the death of his daughter is exceptional. The film is rounded out by strong, naturalistic performances by Judy Geeson and Pat Heywood as Beryl Evans and Ethel Christie, as well as Robert Hardy and Geoffrey Chater as the defence and prosecution lawyers in Evans' trial.
The art direction and cinematography are also brilliant: the grainy 70s film stock perfectly fits the mood, with accurate attention to period detail (the film was partially shot in the real Rillington Place before it was demolished), the dirty greys, browns and greens of the squalid flat adding considerably to the sense of unease that pervades the whole film. Most impressively we don't see very much of the murders taking place, usually just the moments leading up to and after with a casual, dispassionate eye and the film is all the more horrifying because of it.
Watching Christie methodically creeping up the murky staircase in the night with the intention of strangling the crying baby above with a necktie is still shocking and all we need to see. It is enough. Elsewhere the slow reveals of the extent of Christie's crimes are masterfully played out; in the opening of the film we see him dispatching a victim, then digging a hole in his garden. We see a foot protruding from the soil, but it's not until we see the newly wrapped body lying nearby that we discover the murder we've seen is not Christie's first victim. Perhaps the most disturbing image of the film comes at the end when the new tenant discovers a cupboard wallpapered over and investigating with a torch finds Christie's final three victims. It's an image likely to stay with you.
Powerful, subtle and genuinely chilling - one of the great, under-rated British films and easily one of the best films I've seen this year. Highly recommended for anyone interested in true crime and the subtler, grubby corners of thriller and horror cinema.