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Film:  Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

Cast: Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson, Eddie Marsan
Direction: Adrian Shergold
Running Time: 90 minutes

by Martin Mitchell

Pierrepoint is a magnificent film — indeed, unless your psychological defenses are impregnable, you're likely to be a somewhat different person after you've seen it— but it's not a movie I can eagerly recommend. The subtitle, The Last Hangman, tells the story: Albert Pierrepoint had a career (successful? brilliant?), lasting from 1932 to 1956, as a hangman, and he was good at it — the best, in fact. Nothing really exceptional for Albert as he came of age: he simply went into the family business, his father and his uncle having been hangmen before him. At the end of what looks to be his first day of work, a genial but tough-looking co-worker decides he's had quite enough, thank you, and disgustedly gives his pay to Albert, who, not the least bit mean or sadistic, has busied himself all day with the perfectible working details of the job. Those details include the collection of the condemned man from his cell and the quick, efficient business of escorting him (cuffing him, turning him around, leading him across a threshold) to the gallows, with no time or opportunity for the least equivocation. Albert recalls that the shortest time it took his dad to do all this was thirteen seconds, and it's not long before he receives congratulations from the warden for having reduced the sequence of these events to about half that time!

The scene is England before the middle of the 20th century, and everything is plain and dreary; especially in the city, and particularly indoors, even the colors seem to be in black-and-white. And it is this drabness, this unexceptionalness, from which no incident or item stands out no matter how otherwise extraordinary it might appear (to us 21st-century American moviegoers, for example), that is echoed and seems, appropriately, to have governed the making of the film, for which unknown director Adrian Shergold deserves enormous credit and maybe even some major awards.

So for Albert Pierrepoint hanging people is a nine-to-five job, from which, however, he often gets home late because his expertise takes him all around the country — and, after World War II and the Nuremberg Trials, at the behest of Field Marshal Montgomery (a brilliant but disconcertingly outstanding little performance by British TV character actor Clive Francis), to Germany, where (ironically?) the executions of convicted Nazi war criminals are carried out with alacrity bordering on routine. Just as, on home turf, Pierrepoint expresses outrage that, after a grueling day's work, he and his assistant are given a cold meal instead of something hot and substantial ("This just won't do," he complains), he takes his army-uniformed helpmate to task for having run out of coffins and proposing a few shortcuts. Even for monsters, Pierrepoint insists on dignity in death.

In short, this is a movie about details, and it is the measure of the film's success (achievement, let's say) that every little detail — like that of the weird but exhaustive care that Pierrepoint takes in his horrendous but ordinary work — is in every way believable and exact. (I counted only two mistakes in the filmmakers' similarly scrupulous attention: a computer-generated apostrophe in a 1940s newspaper headline and a double-el in Monty's title in the closing credits.) The only obvious artifice in the film is in the fantasy sequences with which director Shergold cleverly depicts the milestones in his hero's ostensibly average life: as Albert waltzes with his dour, unyielding mother she turns into the sweetshop proprietor who becomes his similarly domesticated wife. Played by Juliette Stevenson, Anne Pierrepoint, upon eventually learning of her secretive husband's occupation, keeps his books, getting upset whenever he isn't paid promptly. "Was this one a reprieve?" she asks a bit testily about one missing payment. When the couple has enough money, she persuades him to buy a pub, which soon draws crowds; celebrated for a career he never discusses, Pierrepoint becomes a popular, affable publican.

Things go wrong for Pierrepoint at about the time that capital punishment has had its day. We see Albert (uncharacteristically, considering what we've learned about him) beginning to have doubts, and then, in an episode that not only generates drama but pushes it needlessly over the top (I can't find evidence, outside of Bob Mills and Jeff Pope's script, that this really happened), he faces the prospect of having to execute a good friend: a regular at the pub who killed a former girlfriend in a fit of jealous rage. More believably, the end of his career comes around the time (1955) of the execution of Ruth Ellis, with the British people by then opposed to executions and the laws under challenge. No longer able to return home at night in anonymity, Albert rides through angry crowds that pelt his car with vegetables, rocks, and curses — for him a notoriety only slightly more inconvenient than that of being the national hero of the previous quarter-century.

Martin Mitchell, former editor of Rattapallax (2001-06) and of Pivot (1983-98), reviewed films for several publications, including  After Dark for the length of its existence (1968-81). He is a contributing editor of the magazine.