Timothy Spall is the quintessential blundering bloke in English movies. You’ve seen him in several Mike Leigh films, playing a portly working-class oaf with a sloping chin and chipmunk teeth, wearing a look of wide-eyed bafflement as he lumbers through life. Usually his characters convey a profound reticence. But when the stored-up indignities visited upon them become too much to bear, they can explode with apoplectic outrage. In “Pierrepoint — The Last Hangman” Mr. Spall sinks his teeth into one of the juiciest roles of his career: Albert Pierrepoint, a once-celebrated English hangman who the movie says executed more than 600 people from 1933 to 1955. A third of those were Nazi war criminals, including members of the hierarchy that operated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The movie, directed by Adrian Shergold from a screenplay by Jeff Pope and Bob Mills, uses Pierrepoint’s story to address the issue of capital punishment from a shockingly intimate perspective. — Stephen Holden
In Pierrepoint The Last Hangman Mr. Spall sinks his teeth into one of the juiciest roles of his career: Albert Pierrepoint, a once-celebrated English hangman who the movie says executed more than 600 people from 1933 to 1955. A third of those were Nazi war criminals, including members of the hierarchy that operated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Pierrepoint was handpicked by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to demonstrate to the world that British justice (unlike the Nazis) was fair but firm. Pierrepoint was proud of his work, which he performed with a dispassionate efficiency. The gallows humor is literal in one disquieting scene in which condemned Nazis are disposed of two at a time, assembly-line fashion, to the strains of a Strauss waltz. These mass deaths bring to mind the lethal barbershop of Sweeney Todd.
The movie, directed by Adrian Shergold from a screenplay by Jeff Pope and Bob Mills, uses Pierrepoint’s story to address the issue of capital punishment from a shockingly intimate perspective. Many hangings are shown in semi-close-up, observed from both the viewpoint of the executioner and the prisoners facing imminent death. Some of the condemned are bathed in sweat and murmuring desperate prayers for help. Others remain silent and expressionless.
Pierrepoint devised a system of variable lengths of rope, based on a prisoner�s height, weight and girth, to ensure that death was swift and that the head wasn�t snapped off the body. As a white hood is lowered over the head, the noose tightened around the neck and a lever pulled to drop the body from the scaffold, you cannot avert your eyes. Afterward Pierrepoint and an assistant detach the corpse from the rope, clean it and cover it with a shroud.
The hangman is carrying on his family occupation. It’s in my blood, he declares with a certain smugness. As he is commended for the speed with which he kills (the shortest execution is completed in a record seven and a half seconds) he swells with a sense of accomplishment.
According to tradition this work is carried out in secrecy. He and his prim, avaricious wife, Anne (Juliet Stevenson), have an unspoken agreement never to mention it, although she knows all, having stolen looks at her husband’s meticulously maintained hangman’s log.
Pierrepoint is much more than straightforward fictionalized biography. Once Pierrepoint travels to Germany as the designated executioner of guilty Nazis, the movie confronts you with the obvious parallels between this anonymous functionary carrying out lethal sentences handed down by others, and the Nazi defense that in sending millions to their deaths, they were merely following orders.
Like Pierrepoint, the Nazis kept detailed records of their actions. An unspoken question hovers: Where does culpability begin? One major difference between Pierrepoint and the Nazis is the degree to which he empathizes with the men and women he executes. Once they die, he insists, they have paid their price and are innocent and deserve respect. When an assistant comes up short one coffin, Pierrepoint angrily insists that one must be found. He feels no hatred for the condemned, only sorrow. Unlike the Nazis, he would never describe his executions as extermination.
But his detachment begins to crumble once his occupation is no longer a secret and he returns from Germany to find himself a celebrity hailed by one newspaper headline as an avenging angel. The blood lust of the British public unnerves him. His notoriety also cuts two ways. He is called a murderer by protesters at a rally against capital punishment. And in the most excruciating test of his character, his work and personal life converge traumatically.
The wrenching movie ends with a 1974 quotation from Pierrepoint, made nearly two decades after he retired from the profession: The fruit of my experience has this bitter aftertaste. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge. As this sad, shambling antihero swings from one pole to the other on the issue of capital punishment, you are inclined to follow every step of the way toward his tragic enlightenment.
Pierrepoint – The Last Hangman
Directed by Adrian Shergold; written by Jeff Pope and Bob Mills; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Tania Reddin; music by Martin Phipps; production designer, Candida Otton; produced by Christine Langan; released by IFC First Take. Running time: 90 minutes.