Friday, February 29, 2008

"Christie Done It!"

Initially I dismissed 10 Rillington Place as the kind of movie I'd recommend watching only if it came on TCM, not one that warranted going out of one's way to see. But I've been thinking about it since I saw it a week ago and I have to admit: it's crept up on me.

10 Rillington Place is Richard Fleischer's 1971 suspense thriller/biopic, the story of murderer John Reginald Christie, who lured seven women to their deaths over the course of two decades. It ran briefly at Lincoln Center as part of an ad-hoc mini-retrospective of Fleischer's films (along with Mandingo and "Violent Saturday" at Film Forum, which is also awesome and deserves its own post).

Dave Kehr writes, "Fleischer [films] don’t invite the spectator to identify surreptitiously with the power and impunity of the murderer, but neither are they simple expressions of moral outrage. They focus, with sober detachment, on the details of crime and the working of the criminal mind, expressing no more shock than would a documentary on the functioning of the Ford assembly line..."

This deceptive blandness is what makes the figure of John Christie and his domestic murders so terrifying. There's something so mundane about Christie, and in this particular version of the story that is much more effective than an attempt at a sensational retelling might have been. The dull complacency, delusion and self-absorption of those around Christie allow him to commit his crimes virtually unnoticed for years: Vincent Canby's original review in the NYTimes attributes Christie getting away with it (for a while) as "not due to a lunatic brilliance but to incredible luck and to the incredible stupidity of the people around him."

The film doesn't sensationalize the murders, but chooses instead to devote a lot of attention to the details of working out the crime. It also allows us to spend some time with Timothy Evans, the husband of the murdered woman Beryl Evans, a simple, rough, somewhat brutish man who blundered his way into involvement in Christie's crime. It's his helpless refrain, "Christie done it," that I can't get out of my head. Evans stares blankly at the policemen, judge and jury, unable to articulate any defense, saying only over and over again in bewilderment as case-workers imperviously jot down notes on his mental fitness, "Christie done it!"

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