So heroic British prisoner of war as the base, and how about a British serial killer as an adjustment? That's 1971's 10 Rillington Place, a drama based on the life of British serial killer John Reginald Christie with Attenborough playing Christie. It's a remarkable part for the British actor that earned him tons of critical praise. Playing a historical figure is one thing on the intimidation meter as an actor because there's little room for personal interpretation. But what about playing a killer? There's a certain amount of respect for playing an Abe Lincoln or George Patton. But a killer? Directed by Richard Fleischer, 'Place' doesn't try to present Christie in any sort of positive light -- thankfully -- and just tells the story as accurately as possible.
It's 1944 London and John Reginald Christie (Attenborough) welcomes a woman into his house to treat her for an ailment. He kills her and buries her in the backyard of his home, an apartment building at 10 Rillington Place. Fast forward five years to 1949 and Christie welcomes a young couple who are moving into the building. Timothy Evans (John Hurt) and his wife Beryl (Judy Geeson) have an infant daughter and are struggling to make ends meet. Worse news for Beryl, she's pregnant and there's no way the young couple can afford a second child. With some medical background, Christie offers to help perform an abortion, but the Evans' have no idea what the landlord is up to.
Beyond the acting, Fleischer films a movie light on style and heavy on characterization and doom and gloom. The movie was actually filmed at 10 Rillington Place -- where Christie is believed to have murdered as many as six women -- and gives the story a real sense of macabre and death. Plainly put, it's creepy knowing these things actually happened in the locations we're watching. The London as presented is dark, gloomy and plain with no sense of life or color at all on the streets or in the dank, little apartments. All smart choices in putting this together to make a stark, depressing and unsettling movie.
On pure acting skill, this has to be one of Attenborough's best parts. Reading through some Christie bio information, it looks like he clearly did his homework on the man's behaviors, speech patterns and mannerisms to bring this serial killer to life. He kills his victims with a variety of carbon monoxide that basically knocks them unconscious and then strangles them. We only see this in any sort of detail once, but that's plenty. Bringing this character to life though, we're not taking Jason or Freddy Krueger. He's quiet, keeps to himself, typically very polite, but all these things hide moments where his true self comes out. Those scenes are incredibly unsettling to watch, especially a prolonged abortion procedure. On top of that, it doesn't hurt that he physically resembles the real-life Christie. Safe to say, this is unlike any other Attenborough role I've come across.
Along with Attenborough, the screen is dominated by Hurt and Geeson in a smaller cast. Hurt's Timothy Evans is an illiterate factory worker prone to exaggeration in his stories and a little too much drinking. His character isn't exactly sympathetic, but compared to Christie, this guy's a lamb. His stupidity in not seeing what's happening around him is frustrating because you want him to figure it all out, but Christie just keeps pulling the strings and pushing his buttons to get him to do what he wants. Geeson is the sweet young wife trying to make the best of an awkward situation. She takes the best possible alternative -- which isn't all that great to begin with. Both parts are well-acted and could have easily been overshadowed by Attenborough's performance, but Hurt and Geeson hold their own.
There's something about the movie I'm struggling to put my finger on, but it's definitely a positive. As near as I can figure, it's the honesty in which the true story is told. A majority of the story focuses on this one specific incident between Christie and the Evans with the aftermath rushed to a certain extent. It's not bad rushed though, just fast paced. The ending is a blink and you'll miss it. Overall, the storytelling is a highpoint just in terms of its pacing, honesty and briskness. It doesn't try to whitewash anything, and the movie is that much better for it.
10 Rillington Place <---TCM clips (1971): ***/****