Running Time 90 minutes
Directed by Adrian Shergold
Written by Bob Mills and Jeff Pope
Starring Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson
Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman turns a morbid subject into a fascinating case study of the last official prison executioner in England. The result is both a balanced, carefully researched film and a thoughtful, reflective treatise on capital punishment. Timothy Spall, a fine actor who looks like a dour, bloated rodent, is so perfect in the title role that you wouldn’t want to meet him in a rainy London alley. But he shows a great deal more than the fearful reputation of Albert Pierrepoint, a dull but respectable grocer and husband who was happy to work on the right side of the law until the world started hating him. On his first job, his assistant became so unhinged that he gave away his salary and quit in shame. But Albert persevered, taking pride in his hangman’s noose, professional skill and humane system of execution that guaranteed instant severance of a victim’s neck between the third and fourth vertebrae. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was so impressed that he recruited Albert to execute the Nazi war criminals convicted at Nuremberg—“47 of ’em total, and that’s just this week!” Albert’s ambitious wife (another impeccable performance by Juliet Stevenson) was so proud of her husband’s infamy that she kept the books, became furious every time a prisoner got a government reprieve if Albert didn’t get paid his traveling expenses, and used the proceeds to buy a pub: “I think there’s a lot of fellows who’d like to buy a pint from the fellow who killed the Beast of Belsen!”
In his 24-year career (1932-56), Pierrepoint hanged over 450 people, including Lord Haw Haw, Ruth Ellis and Timothy Evans, the retarded Irish bloke who innocently took the blame for mass murderer John Christie, immortalized in the 1971 thriller 10 Rillington Place. The job of chief executioner ended when beautiful Ruth Ellis went to the gallows in 1955. If you recall, her death caused a public outcry from women everywhere (well documented in the marvelous 1985 film Dance with a Stranger) that helped force Albert’s resignation, and she became the last female executed in Great Britain. Pierrepoint was out of a position, but the masterfully understated Mr. Spall does a sobering job of showing not only the quietly contained British reserve, pride and duty of a man who fell from celebrity to disgrace, but also the cumulative psychological price he paid for his work. Director Adrian Shergold builds facts without emotion, telling the story of a decent man in an indecent job in period cinematography drained of color. Despite the macabre subject matter, it’s a bloodless affair. And it has the courage of its convictions: Clearly a quiet anti-capital-punishment tract, it has subtlety and balance. At a time when frontier justice seems to be making a comeback, Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman makes you think about the moral burden of conscience that the death penalty places on society. No pun intended, but it does have its own gallows humor.