During the London blackout of World War II, John Reginald Christie (Richard Attenborough) worked as a police officer now that the nation's best men were off fighting. He had been injured during The Great War, leaving him with incurable back pain, but he fancied himself as something of a medical expert who would invite women to his home in 10 Rillington Place so he could attempt to cure them. At least, that's what he told them, but should a woman arrive there while his wife was out, whether it was for a bronchial condition or even an illegal abortion, they ran the risk of being murdered by Christie: he was one of Britain's most notorious serial killers.
Director Richard Fleischer had made something of a habit of recreating historical events on the big screen, and it so happpened that this effort was one of his true crime renderings, one of his last as it turned out as he moved further into less factual movie making. This was one of his better films, and he had a real knack for translating actual cases into absorbing drama, but here he was assisted by two excellent performances in Attenborough and John Hurt, who played Timothy Evans, the man who rented the flat above Christie with his wife and baby girl. Just about everyone in the UK at the time this was released knew the fate of Evans, but that did not make it any easier to see here.
Many find 10 Rillington Place too disturbing to watch, and its genuinely dingy atmosphere of seedy despair would make it hard to take even if it did not feature depressing murders. Yet what it actually leaves you with is a feeling of how desperately sad the whole situation was, not that you are sorry for Christie, but his victims, and that includes Evans, are objects of abject pity from the opening scenes. We see Evans and his wife Beryl (Judy Geeson) arrive at the house right after we've viewed Christie carry out one of his crimes, although five years have passed between the incidents. They take the flat, but their poor financial circumstances means that rows are never far away.
This is the case when Beryl tells Evans she is pregnant again, and the somewhat dim husband does not know how to cope with this, happier down the pub spinning tall tales than he is coping with the needs of his family. But when Christie learns about this, he suggests a solution, that he will perform an abortion; such procedures were against the law in those days without special medical permission, but Beryl thinks this is the way out of their problems. Of course, the landlord with his locked away murder kit has other ideas, and it all ends very badly, not only for Beryl but for Evans as well. In a brilliantly acted sequence, Christie informs him in his unassuming but needling fashion that they will have to cover up this crime.
It is here that Evans signed his death warrant, or rather, that Christie signed it for him. The film has social significance in that it was this miscarriage of justice that saw the abolition of the Death Penalty in Britain, as Evans was too muddled by the killer's influence to put up much of a defence and was hanged, presented in one unsettling and abrupt scene. Christie went on to murder again, making this even more tragic, and Fleischer and his team go as far as they can to keep the tone as low key as possible, so as to drain any prurience from their story. However, this does mean that 10 Rillington Place leaves the viewer in such a muted and downcast state that it's possible to admire what the filmmakers did, but impossible to enjoy it; it can be argued that you're not supposed to enjoy such a production, but this is a hard experience to take for all its historical lessons. Music by John Dankworth.