10 Rillington Place (1971)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 31 March (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

– I don’t know, Mr Christie.
– Well Tim, if you haven’t got complete confidence in my abilities…
– I trust you, Mr Christie, of course I do.

I think I was seven when we went on a family holiday to London. One of the attractions we visited was Madame Tussaud’s with its Chamber of Horrors, and inside, amidst the medieval torture devices was a gallery of notorious serial killers. One of these was a rather unassuming middle-aged, balding man, alone in a room, paste brush in hand whilst behind him one of the walls was covered with freshly laid wallpaper. This turned out to be John Reginald Christie. The surface over which he’d so recently papered was a covered up alcove, and inside were the bodies of three murdered women.

It was this alcove that ultimately did for Christie. Shortly after concealing his crime, he sub-let his flat and left, living rough and sleeping in doss houses. In the meantime, the new tenants arrived, complained about the smell and discovered the makeshift tomb. When the police turned up, a further corpse, that of Christie’s wife Ethel, was found beneath the floorboards, along with the remains of two further women buried in the garden, a femur bone being used to prop up a fence. Later, Christie would be accused of killing Beryl and Geraldine Evans, the wife and baby daughter of Timothy Evans, who himself had been hanged for the crimes several years earlier whilst occupying the same building. Three years on from Evans’s death, Christie faced the noose.

What struck me about the waxwork model was the apparent ordinariness of the murderer. In films and on television, there’s often some obvious sign that marks someone out as a serial killer, some indefinable thing that marks them out as psychologically unbalanced enough to commit such heinous crimes, but Christie looked so normal, which of course made the whole affair so much more chilling, the idea that you can’t tell, you really can’t tell.

It’s this quality that Richard Attenborough brought to sinister life when he played Christie in 10 Rillington Place, the address of the residence where the murders happened. I’ve always admired Attenborough more as an actor than for his directing. The films he’s helmed too often appear to me to move at a pace slightly slower than stately, whereas on the other side of the camera he can produce really haunting performances across a wide variety of roles. Christie’s one of his best, something he also acknowledged, the murderer who projects a veneer of outward genteel respectability so convincingly that he can get murderously close to women whilst shifting the suspicion onto others. On the surface, his Christie appears to be just another man on the street, nothing to see here, but it’s all in the restless shifting of his eyes, his habit of peering out of a gap in the drapes as though sensing the knot of suspicion closing around him, the soft spoken Yorkshire dialect that comes across as warm and genial.

The story focuses on the murders of Beryl and Geraldine, and the implication of Timothy as their killer, a fabrication weaved by Christie. At the time 10 Rilington Place was made, Evans had already been pardoned for the killing of his wife though not his daughter, the crime for which he had actually been convicted in the first instance. Whilst the matter of police misconduct during the investigation was still undecided, the film based itself on Ludovic Kennedy’s book, Ten Rillington Place, which argued that the investigation had been flawed and Evans innocent. In the film, Evans is played by the BAFTA nominated John Hurt as a working class Welshman with a seriously low IQ, meaning he can be easily influenced by Christie. Judy Geeson plays Beryl, Evans’s pretty young wife, who becomes pregnant for a second time. This is a worry for the couple. They can barely afford to make ends meet and their flat in 10 Rillington Place is small and squalid enough to begin with. Christie, who was able to meet many women during the war as a backstreet abortionist, offers his services to the Evans couple and they agree. What they don’t realise is that it’s an excuse to gas Beryl into a state of unconsciousness and then rape and strangle her, which is exactly what he does. The tools of his trade, the pipes that hook up to the gas supply, supposedly benign medicinal mixture, and rope, are kept under lock and key in a little medicine cabinet, and his retrieval of these items is a sure precursor to murder.

Evans goes to work, comes home and Christie tells him there’s been a complication in the abortion and Beryl’s dead. By simple persuasion, he argues they’re both guilty and offers to get rid of the body if Evans will leave for a while. He even says he knows a couple who’ll take Geraldine in, which seems to solve all the young man’s problems at once. Of course that’s a lie and Evans is no sooner on the train to Merthyr than Christie’s taking his tie upstairs in order to deal with the baby. Back in Wales and racked with guilt, Evans hands himself in to the police. Events start to spiral out of control as the investigation and the ease with which they wring a confession out of him turn the case into a fait accompli. Crucially, Christie distances himself completely from the murders. Ethel (Pat Heywood) backs him up, though there’s a sense she suspects something isn’t right. Evans, unable to read the confession he’s signed, hopelessly out of his depth and only realising at the end that he’s been stitched up, begins repeating ‘Christie’s done it’ but it’s all too late and he has an appointment to keep with the hangman.

It’s a brilliant study by Hurt, the youthful bravado he shows whilst drinking with his mates at the pub falling away once he realises he’s in desperate trouble and relying on entirely the wrong man to help him. It becomes apparent quickly that he’s just the wrong man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he doesn’t come close to appreciating the man into whom he’s placed his trust is the wrongest of all the elements. Geeson’s great as the innocent and hopeful Beryl, and there’s a small part for Isobel Black as her best friend, who for her own sake is probably fortunate to vanish from the picture when she does.

10 Rillington Place was directed by Richard Fleischer, a flexible filmmaker whose previous work covered on these pages are a far cry from the subject matter here. Fleischer had made films about real-life serial killers before, notably The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis, but he brought a real documentary sensibility to this project, feeling rightly that the subject matter was horrific enough without the need for added melodrama. As far as it was possible to do so, the script by Clive Exton copied real, recorded speeches from the characters. The scenes at Rillington Place were filmed in Rillington Place (which has since been knocked down and completely remodelled as part of Notting Hill’s subsequent gentrification – this YouTube video speculates on the most likely location); the residents at number 10 wouldn’t allow their home to be used, so the crew worked across the street in number 7 instead, capturing starkly the slum conditions that framed the ghastly events, the poverty of the intransigent residents, the relative ‘four to a room’ destitution within which Christie operated. The murders, when they take place, are shown graphically, and whilst little is made of the killer’s motives, the signs are there in Attenborough’s performance. Most chillingly of all, it’s the ease with which he commits his crimes that are the most shocking element, the absence of guilt as though it’s all a normal part of his working day.

It’s a difficult film to recommend as entertainment, though it’s certainly worth seeing not least as a study into the machinations of a real life killer, told largely without embellishment, also the shaky police work that led to Evans’s hanging. In 1965, several years before 10 Rillington Place was released, the death penalty in the UK was suspended, largely because of the horrible potential of wrongful convictions. There was a large swell of support for its return, before people saw the film and appreciated the consequences of getting it wrong.

10 Rillington Place: ****

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Fantastic Voyage (1966)

When it’s on: Saturday, 7 March (12.55 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

The premise of Fantastic Voyage is this – the Cold War simmers on, and scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain have developed the technology to miniaturise objects and even human beings. The possibilities this represents are perceived to be decisive potentially, but there’s a catch. The miniaturisation process lasts for only sixty minutes, after which the subject will irrevocably expand back to the original size. One Russian boffin has discovered a solution and, even better, he wants to defect to the west. Getting off the plane on US soil, he’s gunned down by enemy agents, and is left fighting for his life, comatose and with a blood clot on his brain. Not removing the clot will kill him, and the only way to do so is to use the new process, inject a microscopic team of surgeons into the man’s bloodstream and get them to use a laser to clear it. All in the space of an hour.

Enter Stephen Boyd as Grant, a CIA agent who helped the scientist to defect. He joins the small crew taking a submarine, the Proteus, into the scientist’s body. His fellows include mission leader, Dr Michaels (Donald Pleasance), surgeon Dr Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and his assistant Cora (Raquel Welch). As the team is miniaturised, the procedure is overseen by military staff who work through innumerable cups of coffee and cigars whilst the ‘operation’ takes place.

Fantastic Voyage was one of those films that constantly seemed to be on television when I was a child. A major success and rather a thrilling premise, the fun was had from the moment the team enters the scientist’s bloodstream and experience the human body from a unique perspective. Thrillingly, the plot moves as quickly as possible to get them to this juncture, and the hour they spend in miniature form is played in close to real time, the countdown adding to the tension as they face various pitfalls on their journey. What makes it even better is that one of the crew is clearly a double agent and out to sabotage the mission, a plot Grant attempts to uncover as the minutes tick away.

Watched now, the cracks start to appear. The biology seems sound enough to layman viewers and there’s a note of authenticity before the film starts to add to its gravitas. Leonard Rosenman’s score doesn’t kick in until they’re in the bloodstream, as though giving the piece a documentary feel. However, the miniaturisation, whilst a cleverly assembled sequence, is straight out of science fiction. It’s a great process, the submarine shrunk until it’s the size of a toy car, before it’s placed carefully into a big cylinder of liquid that is then diminished so that it can form the trunk of a syringe. But it’s crazy, and they know it, keeping technobabble to a minimum so that audiences can enjoy the ride without being fobbed off with a pat explanation of how it all works.

The main length of the film, whilst the crew are inside the man, is good stuff, utilising contemporary cutting edge special effects that don’t look so terrible now (and indeed, it was for technical achievements that it won two Academy Awards). I like the scenes inside the lungs, which look like an alien landscape from an episode of Star Trek, when it’s explained that what appears to be rocks are in fact specks of dust. The whole sequence reminds me of the Starship Enterprise’s lengthy flight to the centre of V’ger in Star Trek: the Motion Picture, which makes sense as Kirk and his crew were traversing the extended ‘body’ of the little probe.

But it is hokum, complete fiction, and this was recognised by writer Isaac Asimov, who was approached to pen the novelisation. At first dismissive, Asimov went ahead with the job with the proviso that he could lessen some of the film’s crazier leaps in logic, for instance dealing with the destruction of the Proteus. In the film, white blood cells attack and destroy the submarine, but any bits of wreckage left behind would be sure to expand after an hour, bursting horribly from within the scientist. Along with the discarded laser gun, this turned into a fatal oversight that was resolved in the book, though clearly it was hoped the excitement of the climactic moments would excise any of this from the thoughts of viewers.

Fantastic Voyage was directed by sure hand Richard Fleischer, who brought some of his technical people from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to help make the show look more realistic. Fleischer knew how to make a tale tick along, aware that audiences would want to get from the set-up to the realisation as quickly as possible and not wasting time in making it unfold. Boyd was entirely capable of playing square jawed heroes and, despite having no medical experience, comes to suggest solutions to the crew members that keep the mission going, relying on little more than his sense of authority and charisma. Kennedy’s job is to come out with philosophical statements that bring to life the wonders of the human body, saying things like ‘Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought’ whilst looking on in sheer amazement. Welch, who at the time was in the process of attaining stardom, has little to do beyond look good in her tight fitting (obviously) scuba diving costume and get into situations of peril, as in the moment when she’s attacked by antibodies and has the indignity of her fellow crew members removing them from all over her body. As for Pleasance, he’s one of those actors, like Herbert Lom and Brian Cox, whose presence removes any sense of mystery when there’s a secret villain within the crew…

The film inspired an animated series, novels and a comic book, and talks continue over the possibility of a remake, with various illustrious directors attached. It does seem to be one of those stories tailor-made for a twenty first century update, and there’s something tantalising about recreating the ‘inner space’ scenes using the latest CGI technology. For now, there’s this version, which remains a slice of good fun and certainly doesn’t fail to thrill, as in the famous scene involving a pair of dropped scissors, something mundane that creates great suspense.

Fantastic Voyage: ***

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

When it’s on: Friday, 11 May (4.45 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

A strange twilight world opened up before me, and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.

Film4 spoil us with an end of the week treat in the shape of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney production into which serious money was sunk and one that found itself the second highest grossing picture of the year (behind White Christmas).

As always, I read various peoples’ reviews of films after watching them and here, more than usual, I found critical opinion often giving way to the warm glow of nostalgic memories. By all accounts, going to see 20,000 Leagues in 1954 was a magical experience, exactly the sensation Walt Disney wished to elicit from his movies. The closest I guess we kids of the next generation came to it was Star Wars, yet in a way 20,000 Leagues was more important because of the respect it paid to its audience. Both flicks are at heart adventure yarns, but the earlier release has something profound to say about the world. Captain Nemo lives underwater and attacks warships due to a disillusionment with the world. He’s terrified about giving up the secrets of the Nautilus because of what people might do with the technology. I don’t suppose it’s any coincidence that Nemo’s concerns would have chimed with Cold War era audiences.

Nemo is played by the great James Mason, oscillating ever between genius and madness. Mason was a casting coup for Disney, who didn’t normally attract performers of his calibre, and the role requires a heavyweight, someone who can convey his character’s conflict and come across as a villain, but not altogether evil. Into his watery world comes Professor Pierre Arounax (Paul Lukas), who’s been researching accounts of the sea monster that devours ships (i.e. being rammed by the Nautilus, which appears above the surface of the sea as an oncoming, terrifying  pair of huge green eyes) and in whom Nemo senses a kindred spirit. The academic brings along his apprentice, Conseil (Peter Lorre), and a salty seaman with the ironic name of Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).

Lorre is on hand as the largely comic sidekick, whilst Douglas provides the broad-shouldered muscle. I’m used to seeing the latter play far more intense characters in serious films, so catching him in a light-hearted role was a real surprise. Watch! Douglas sings! He performs with a seal! He’s actually very good value as the guitar strumming Land, and apparently he had great fun making the film.

Fun is the bottom line as the Nautilus goes about its underwater business, demonstrating that life can be enjoyed to the full beneath the waves, providing you like smoking seaweed cigars. The effects work is breathtaking for the era – the model filming isn’t as obvious as it so clearly appears to be in other pictures, and even the giant squid attack works. No Ray Harryhausen style stop motion stuff here. The tentacle wires and animatronics are masked largely by the decision to film the scene in a thunderstorm at night, which also has the nice side effect of increasing the drama. Filming the scene was something of a struggle, and no less a figure than Disney himself ordered a full retake when the original, set in a calm sea, exposed too much of the squid’s artificial workings. My DVD contains the original squid attack as an extra; they made the right choice.

Richard Fleischer directs steadily, letting the film flag slightly in the middle as the full scale of what the Nautilus can do is revealed. Even by 1954 standards, as the USA launched its first nuclear submarine, there must have been a feeling of ‘Huh?’ from viewers who were quite used to a world containing submersibles. It’s for this reason the film retains the Victorian era setting, the one in which Jules Verne wrote his novel. This ensures the submarine is a set of considerable delights, with its rivets, brass instruments and Nemo’s amazing pipe organ.

Elsewhere, 20,000 Leagues may very well be the perfect family film. The Disney formula of cute animals, songs and lame gags is minimised in favour of action and a refreshing philosophical undertone. This is why it’s a gift of a film, especially in an era when what we get from cross-generational visits to the cinema are computer animations and telegraphed narratives.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: *****

The Vikings (1958)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 April 2012 (3.15 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

With a respectful nod to Mad Men, my favourite show on TV at the moment is Game of Thrones, the lavish adaptation of George R R Martin’s historically inspired series of fantasy novels. HBO have done a fantastic job of bringing a complicated, adult narrative to the screen and doing so reverentially whilst introducing elements that weren’t in the text. The casting is almost entirely spot on, producing some top drawer acting. There’s a feeling of authenticity to its sets and locations; real care has been put into its production values, which reach easily the impeccable standards we’ve come to expect of HBO. If I have a small criticism of the show, it is the endless shoehorning in of nudity and sex. I’m no prude and Martin’s books are by nobody’s measure safe for the faint-hearted. Yet an episode can’t pass without a visit to the brothel, or a coupling of some kind, often a sex scene that is only implied as taking place in the text but here made clear and graphic.

It seems a strange thing to have a beef about, but then I’m not 14. Sometimes, I’d prefer it if this kind of thing happened off-screen, insinuated without the need to unfold before my eyes in messy detail. It makes me hark back to a cinema age when this is exactly how sex was dealt with, when the most we saw was a passionate kiss with all the promise it suggested. It makes me reminisce over a matinee classic like The Vikings, sort of a forebear to Game of Thrones with its culling of historical sources for the purpose of entertainment.

The Vikings is now more than fifty years old, and in places it feels like it. Some of the dialogue comes straight from that rotten stable of clichés and stilted hackneyism, the rotten nonsense you imagine the actors having to stifle the giggles whilst quoting. In an almost unbearable courtship scene between Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, the former has to come out with ‘Let’s not question our flesh for wanting to remain flesh’ and keep a straight face. Fortunately, the chemistry is intact thanks to the pair being real-life spouses at the time, but it’s arm-gnawing stuff.

Like all historical epics, there’s a certain obviousness to the plot that was utterly standard for this fare, yet otherwise The Vikings is a definite cut above. For one thing, there’s the trim running time. It sails home at under two hours, ensuring the padding that slowed many of these films down just isn’t there. Perhaps this was because Viking villages weren’t as costly to replicate as Roman sets, so the camera didn’t need to linger on them. The slowest it gets is during the scenes of merriment in Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) mead hall; elsewhere the pace is consistently nifty and dull moments are rare.

The research that went into The Vikings was impressive. Longboats were built to real historical specifications; it was gleaned almost too late that human beings were generally shorter and stockier a thousand years ago, which made being an oarsman on set a cramped experience. Village sets, costumes and weaponry were also designed to comply with what is known of the time. That’s a real Norwegian fjord the longboat’s sailing alongside, etc. The sense of and need for authenticity was practised as well as preached by the film’s star and co-producer, Kirk Douglas, who not only spent the majority of it wearing an enormously painful contact lens but also performed the famous oar run for real, several times, he and the stuntmen who were doing it alongside him.

Veteran action film director Richard Fleischer was drafted to do an economical job of helming the picture (which led to his nomination for Outstanding Direction by the Directors Guild of America), but the real credits belong elsewhere. Jack Cardiff was Director of Photography, churning out those wonderful, evocative shots of longboats cruising home, or disappearing into the mists. In one breathtaking scene,  Douglas’s character hears Ragnar’s ship approaching. He leaves his house to take a look, which just happens to be down a sheer cliff face, the boat a toy in the distance. I also fell in love with Mario Nascimbene’s score, which carried shades of Wagnerian grandeur and sweep but also seemed kind of melancholic. The arrangement as the Vikings leave their home for the Kingdom of Northumbria suggests the reality – not all of them are going to make it back…

After that, the rest of the film’s treats come in a generous shower. The Vikings has one of the loveliest credit sequences I’ve seen in any film, a series of animated scenes inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry as we are treated to a potted history of the people, which is narrated by the appropriately grandiose Orson Welles. That’s just the opening salvo, a promise of adventure, brotherly feuds, brilliantly staged sword fights with the music muted to let the satisfying clang of the blades ring true, Douglas and Curtis at their lusty best, Leigh at her most incredibly beautiful… There’s even a chance it could teach a thing or two to many newer productions.

The Vikings: ****