For his second feature film as a director, Attenborough entered the realm of the biopic, a place where he would find much of his future filmmaking success. In this case, however, he decided not to deal with the iconic aspects of Churchill’s legacy, but the beginning, when he was an angry young man and hotheaded soldier. Robert Shaw, as his father, casts a long shadow while (then) newcomer Simon Ward shines as the soon to be mythic UK politician. Covering subjects like Churchill’s service in India and his capture during the Second Boer War, Attenborough proved he was just as comfortable with action as he was actors.
Before the drug busts, before the tabloid infamy, the court dates, the stints in rehab and the eventual metamorphosis into Marvel’s main man, Robert Downey Jr. earned across the board kudos for playing the celebrated silent comedy star in this brassy biopic. Attenborough based the story on Chaplin’s own autobiography, though having the 27 year old actor play 80 (via some rather unconvincing age make-up) was a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, Downey was downright brilliant in the recreations of Chaplin’s famed film routines. Critics complained that this was nothing more than a whitewashing of a far more complex creative life. It’s still terrific.
Believe it or not, Attenborough got his start playing cherub faced baddies. The second selection of this list became one of his earliest and most celebrated signature roles. So did this one, tackling the true life serial killer known as John Christie. John Hurt and Judy Gleeson are the Evans, a young couple who rent a room at the title locale, a place where our featured fiend rapes and kills with abandon. Perhaps one of the most notorious cases of miscarried post-war justice in British history (resulting in the Crown pardoning Hurt’s character, posthumously), Attenborough is electrifying as the meek little man with murder on his mind.
Three years before this film version was released, Attenborough was drawing major critical and audience attention in the West End for his performance as Pinkie Brown, a teenage hoodlum who, along with his gang, hopes to control crime at a racecourse near the title locale. When a reporter uncovers what’s going on, Pinkie kills him. When attempts to cover his tracks fail, our unhinged rogue murders even more people. Then a war breaks out with some rivals. All the while, Attenborough uses his boyish good looks and devilish grin to suggest Pinkie’s antisocial psychosis. A groundbreaking performance in one of the best British noirs of the ‘40s.
Of all of Attenborough’s “evil” portraits, this one is the most unassuming, and as a result, the most disturbing. Playing the henpecked husband of a fraudulent medium (Kim Stanley), he agrees to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy couple in order to “prove” his wife’s powers. She plans to then “help” the police find the child and, as a result, earn a reputation for reliability (and, hopefully, a plethora of paying customers). Naturally, these best laid plans go wildly astray. Attenborough is mesmerizing, doing both the meek and the menacing with his standard everyman aura, proving that, even in the most mild looking fellow, great horror can exist.
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Photo: Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park (1993)