10 Rillington Place is different to other films about murderers of the era. In particular, the characterisation of Christie makes him less of a typical movie monster, à la Norman Bates, and something more banal. Attenborough’s Christie is someone who uses a busybody, old-fashioned respectability to manipulate people and hide his true malice: to lure victims home, he pretends to be someone who can help them with their various medical ailments.
The result is a film that is quiet yet undeniably horrific. Music and film critic Andrew Male knows this only too well. “Much like Joseph Heller’s Something Happened,” he tells BBC Culture, “I think 10 Rillington Place is a masterpiece that I have no desire to ever revisit. I think it’s so effective in conjuring up an atmosphere of evil and malaise that I find it far scarier than any so-called horror film I’ve ever seen.” The effectiveness of Fleischer’s film is its subversion of horror, taking a subject common in the genre, serial murder, but letting its grim world stain slowly, rather than relying on shocks. “I seek out great horror films,” Male concludes, “I like being scared, but I don’t like whatever 10 Rillington Place is doing to me. It has something miasmic about it, like the very film-stock is blighted. It infects the room that it’s screened in.”
The same banal horror disturbed the cast too, especially Attenborough. A gruelling daily make-up routine to give him Christie’s balding look likely didn’t help. Yet, when discussing the film years later, the actor revealed the more psychological strains of the role. “I never spoke to anybody broadly when we were shooting,” he told Henderson’s Film Industries. “During lunchtime, I went to my room and sat alone. One of the strange feelings I had was that I couldn’t rid myself of the picture for quite a long time.” Male attests to the shape-shifting mastery of Attenborough’s performance. “In Attenborough,” he suggests, “I recognise nothing of that actor. I see only a version of Christie, one that I believe totally and one I am utterly terrified of.” His intense working methods, amplified by the real locations, certainly paid off.
With interest in true crime never greater, it’s unsurprising to find the story of 10 Rillington Place still drawing curiosity. In 2016, Craig Viveiros directed another accomplished telling of the story for the BBC starring Tim Roth as Christie and Jodie Comer as Beryl Evans. Despite the obvious qualities of the series, it was at a distinct disadvantage: the earlier film was touched with the electricity of the debate around capital punishment, and boasts a unique authenticity enabled by its relative proximity to the time of the murders.
Indeed, Fleischer’s drama is still the ultimate in British true crime drama: a disturbing parable that eschews the sensationalism of many equivalent projects in favour of a commitment to the truth behind the headlines, making it all the more chilling.
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