In the early 1950s, London was horrified by women’s bodies discovered at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill. The murders were committed by a resident, John Reginald (Reg) Christie, and had been happening since 1943.
All the more disturbing was that in 1949 the bodies of a woman and her daughter had been discovered in a wash house at the same address. The woman’s husband was executed for the crime but Christie had done it.
What’s this to do with See How They Run (2022), an entertaining spoof of the Agatha Christie-style, drawing room whodunnit, so long a feature of British literature and theatre?
A staple of the English theatre and film catalogue, Attenborough was a star in 1952 when he played the investigating detective in Agatha Christie’s (just for the record, the two Christies were not related) play The Mousetrap.
The play, which became the longest-running theatre production in history, was 100 performances in when viewers join it in See How They Run.
The movie is a light romp with some good performances and a reasonable plot which works well off the strong bones of its play-within-a-play. However, the casting of Harris Dickinson as Attenborough detracted from the whole. For a start, Dickinson is a tall, handsome leading man while Attenborough was a short, rather squat man.
Having begun his career as a deserter in Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942), Attenborough became a star playing Pinky in Brighton Rock (1947). For his part, the See How They Run-Attenborough doesn’t look like a man who could serve in the ranks on a destroyer about to be sunk or play a psychopathic small-time hoodlum.
The real Attenborough later played Reg Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971) and Dickinson couldn’t have pulled that off either. One reviewer called this movie scarier than any horror movie ever made.
Dickinson’s casting probably doesn’t matter because he does an ok job. It’s just he wasn’t Attenborough in a film which takes its movie and thriller references to a fine point.
An early example is the appearance of Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) as the real detective investigating the death of a Hollywood director during a party celebrating The Mousetrap’s 100th performance.
So there are two detectives. Rockwell and Dickinson. The gag is that Tom Stoppard wrote a theatrical murder mystery called The Real Inspector Hound, which gets a mention in the script. A slow read of this document would probably unearth many more.
The dead director, Leo Kopernik (Adrien Brody), reappears in flashback after his early bludgeoning in See How They Run – a tactic live plays would find far more difficult to achieve. Kopernik’s explanation of The Mousetrap: “Whodunnit. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all” is probably the least offensive remark he makes to the other principals.
These include Mervyn-Cocker Norris (David Oyelowo), who has written a film treatment of the play; John Wolfe (Reece Shearsmith), a producer with a contract to make the film but only when the play’s theatre life is over; Petula Spender (Ruth Wilson) as the play’s producer; Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), Attenborough’s real-life wife and one of the show’s stars; and Dennis Corrigan (Charlie Cooper), the theatre usher.
There were some funny lines written by Mark Chappell for this ensemble and Oyelowo gets much of the best. However, I thought some of the other characters may have been short changed by lack of a team-written screenplay?
Chappell’s background is television as is that of director Tom George, who was at the helm of many episodes of Glastonbury (2015). As an aside, Cooper was one of the leads in George’s most-recent TV outing, This Country (2017-20). This series also featured Paul Chahidi, who has an amusing turn as Fellowes, Agatha Christie’s butler, in See How They Run.
So did television restrict the dynamics of Chappell and George? Perhaps, but they are redeemed in four words: Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).
Ronan is a brilliant actor and she shows her comic talents to great effect here. Spoilt with the best character in the film, she zings her “jump to conclusion” lines with great appeal. Her easy switch from almost incompetence to brilliant detective in the one paragraph are a delight.
Rockwell is good as the inspector but he usually plays such kooky roles (like the racist policeman in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri) that it seems a stretch playing a post-WWII English copper.
Was it a case of switcheroo for the director? English actors are getting some great Hollywood parts. Let’s cast a noted US actor as an English police inspector. Don’t know the answer but it worked.
See How They Run isn’t great but it’s good. You’ll laugh at the dialogue and get frequent chuckles at references to the genre.