As infamous serial murderer John Reginald Christie, Richard Attenborough is just exaggerated enough to remain credible. With his vaguely threatening countenance (shiny bald pate, pupil-magnifying spectacles) and lulling wisp of a voice, this genial strangler might be the bastard child of anarchy and politesse—or at least Elmer Fudd and Droopy.
Christie’s cartoonishness is appropriate considering that director Richard Fleischer is the son of animated-film pioneer Max Fleischer. Yet the character never seems a gag come to life. Both the director’s sober approach to the very lurid subject matter and Attenborough’s appropriately one-note performance help to illuminate this ostensible villain’s psychopathic philosophies, which are never treated as unholy gospel.
Unlike many a film serial killer, Christie isn’t preaching an alternate way of living to a secretly receptive audience. He remains a nondescript loner whom Fleischer and Attenborough insist we pay attention to, even as he slowly shatters the existence of his illiterate boarder (Hurt, doing the definitive take on “two sandwiches short of a picnic”). When Christie thereafter spirals into an undistinguished purgatory, the film gains in methodical momentum. The inevitable end—the killer’s apprehension on the banks of the Thames—sticks troublingly in the mind, as if justice has swaddled nothing more than a heavy-breathing black hole. It’s the perfect, downbeat grace note on which to end this underseen gem.