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Ten Rillington Place (1971) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

christie tim evans beryl

Principal social themes: capital punishment, abortion

Columbia Pictures. PG rating. Featuring: Richard Attenborough, John Hurt, Judy Geeson, Pat Heywood, Andre Morell, Isobel Black, Robert Hardy, Geoffrey Chater, Sam Kydd, Bernard Lee, Gabrielle Daye. Written by Clive Exton based on the book Ten Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy. Cinematography by Denys Coop. Edited by Ernest Walter. Music by John Dankworth. Produced by Leslie Linder and Martin Ransohoff. Directed by Richard Fleisher. Color. 111 minutes.


John Christie was one of the most notorious British serial killers, most of his crimes being committed in his lodging at Ten Rillington Place. One of his most audacious feats was his murder in 1949 of Beryl Evans and her baby, framing her illiterate husband Tim Evans for the crime, who was tried and hanged. Years later, after Christie was exposed as the killer, the execution of Tim Evans became one of the primary factors behind the abolishment of the death penalty in Great Britain in 1971, the same year as this film’s release. The script is closely based on the most detailed book on the case, written by Ludovic Kennedy, who also served as technical advisor for the production. The original location of the events, Rillington Place, was scheduled for demolition, allowing a unique opportunity for the filmmakers to shoot the movie in the actual building where Christie had killed, buried, and walled up many of his victims. Ten Rillington Place is considered one of the most effective true-crime pictures ever made. As a document of how the death penalty can be mistakenly applied to an innocent man, the film itself has come to be regarded as one of the most powerful arguments against capital punishment.


The picture begins with a 1944 sequence during a London blackout. Christie, a local air raid warden, invites a young woman to his flat under the pretense of treating her bronchitis. He induces her to inhale gas through a homemade device, rendering her unconscious, after which he rapes and kills her. The scene sets up Christie’s method, how he puts his victims at ease with his calm reassurance. He feigns medical knowledge with an air of complete confidence, and only at the last instance do his victims realize that they have been deceived.

The scene switches to 1949, as Tim Evans, a truck driver of low intelligence, his wife Beryl, and their baby daughter, Geraldine, take up residence on the third floor of Ten Rillington Place. Christie, as caretaker of the building, befriends them. He soon learns that the tenants are very short of money and that they are quarreling since Beryl is pregnant again. Christie tells Beryl that he is knowledgeable about “terminations,” and when she asks for his help, he agrees. Before Tim leaves for work on the morning of the planned abortion, Christie obtains Tim’s permission, warning him that the procedure can be dangerous. Christie sends his wife out on an errand. He proposes to operate on Beryl on the floor of the kitchen, placing a blanket down for her comfort. She fights back when he tries to administer the gas, and he knocks her out with his fist and kills her. When Tim comes home that evening, Christie tells him that Beryl died due to septic poisoning. He warns Tim not to involve the police, convincing him that it would mean prison for both of them if word of the abortion attempt reached the authorities. He convinces Tim to flee, telling him that he will look after Geraldine and put her up for adoption. Instead, he strangles the child as soon as Tim leaves. Several days later, a confused Tim attempts to report to the police, but his story is incoherent. The police investigate and discover the bodies of Beryl and the baby behind the wall of a water closet just off the back yard. The police accuse Tim of double homicide, and he has a breakdown, signing a confession. During the trial, Tim tells the truth, that Christie had committed the murders, although he can provide no motive. Christie serves as the main witness for the prosecution, and Tim Evans is convicted and sentenced to death. He is hanged at the prison, still proclaiming Christie as the murderer.

Christie’s wife suspects that her husband is the real killer. She attempts to leave him, but he kills her and puts her body beneath the floorboards. Christie goes on a killing spree, placing his victims’ remains in the walls or burying them in the backyard of Ten Rillington Place. Too impoverished to afford the rent, Christie is forced to abandon the flat, and the new residents, alerted by the foul odor, discover the decomposing bodies. Christie is apprehended by a policeman as he wanders aimlessly along the banks of the Thames. An end scrawl proclaims that Christie was tried and executed, and that Timothy Evans was officially exonerated, and his remains were reburied in hallowed ground.


Ten Rillington Place adopts a low-key, almost understated tone to this film, giving it a very matter-of-fact and documentary tone. It does not try to manipulate the audience in its approach to the social themes of capital punishment or abortion, allowing the situation itself to address these issues. The only implied criticism is that the police are shown as only willing to make a minimum effort in this case. They never show the slightest interest in investigating Christie. At one point, a dog unearths a body part in Christie’s backyard, which the killer hastily shoves back into the ground as the police search the premises. It is the one moment of black humor in a rather somber and tragic proceeding.

The cast of the production is exceptional. Richard Attenborough as Chrisite speaks in a soft whisper (and we later learn during the Evans trial that Christie suffered from hysterical muteness for three years after World War I). His performance is multilayered as well as one of depth. For instance, when the death sentence against Timothy Evans is read in court, Christie is unexpectedly moved to tears. Ultimately, Attenborough’s Christie is a cold, inhuman, confidence man who drifts from killing to killing with no real design or purpose. John Hurt does not portray Tim Evans as a sympathetic character. He is at times cruel, stubborn, and quick to anger, but nevertheless he is not a murderer. Judy Geeson is the most likable character in the film, and she is clearly the predestined victim in the tragic series of events. Pat Heywood, on the other hand, plays Christie’s wife as a shadow, an enigma. It is unclear why she remains silent while Tim is on trial, and only later plans to desert her husband, when it is too late. Her killing is the only one of Christie’s crimes that seems to have a motive, but the audience feels no sympathy for her because of her silence.

Ten Rillington Place makes an excellent sounding board for students researching the issue of the death penalty. It is a crystal clear example of the misapplication of justice and that the legal system, no matter how fair, will produce mistakes. The film serves as a perfect example of one of the major arguments questioning the moral foundation of capital punishment.

Terrell, Robert H.(1857–1925) - Lawyer, judge, Chronology [next] [back] Temptation of Christ

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