On a scale of 1-10, how interested are you in a biopic of a famous
hangman? About a three? Maybe lower? Yeah, I guess that would be typical.
The premise certainly offers the potential for a morbid, depressing film
which lapses into proselytizing for one point of view or another.
Surprisingly, that is not the case. Oh, it's not a feel-good movie. It
must dramatize a couple dozen hangings in real time, and you can guess how
pleasant that is, but it does not obsess over the unpleasant physical
details like the loss of bowel control. It is basically a psychological
study, and a consistently interesting true story.
Albert Pierrepoint was a second generation hangman who prided himself
on his work. He developed an efficient system of weights and rope lengths
which allowed him to kill the condemned person instantly, and he had a
purely businesslike approach to his job. He never employed gallows humor
to break the tension. He believed that all those executed should be
treated with as much respect as possible, and after the execution he
insisted that their bodies be given the same treatment one might give the
body of a beloved family member. His theory was that the criminals had
been sentenced to death to pay for their crimes; therefore, their account
was fully paid as soon as they died, and from that point forward they were
entitled to the same treatment as any other Englishman.
He remained anonymous from 1932 to 1945. Even his wife didn't know what
he did on the weekends, at least not officially. That's the way the system
worked in England. A hangman was not a full-time professional from within
the penal system, but a part-timer who was trained and hired in secrecy,
then summoned by the state when his services were required. There would be
several such people "on the list" at any given time, and their assignments
were rotated. They would travel to the place of execution on a Friday
evening, receive a meal and a bed, and conduct the execution the next
morning, leaving them free to pick up their stipend and return to their
normal lives with a minimum of disruption while attracting a minimum of
suspicion. Albert was just a grocer so far as anyone knew, and that's
exactly the way he liked it. Even under the shroud of anonymity, it was
difficult enough to be a hangman, bearing the psychological burden of an
endless string of face-to-face encounters with those about to die.
His secret was revealed after the war when the British government
needed to execute a vast number of Nazi war criminals. Field Marshall
Montgomery asked the penal experts for their best man, and Pierrepoint was
their choice. On behalf of England, Montgomery personally asked
Pierrepoint to take the job. For a humble grocer turned pub owner, a
personal audience with the legendary Monty himself, coupled with recognition as the nation's best
at his "other" job, was an exhilarating honor, but the ultimate price of it
was dear. As a result of the Nazi executions, the press learned Pierrepoint's identity, and he became quite a national celebrity, often
treated to a spontaneous "he's a jolly good fellow" when recognized. Being
a celebrity hangman was all well and good right after the war, but the
supply of Nazis was not unlimited and when all the war crimes had been
adjudicated, Pierrepoint went back to life as usual, absent his former
cloak of anonymity. Those last six or seven years of his career proved to
be distressing. Knowing who he was, mothers would come to him to intercede
on behalf of their sons. Protestors would parade outside his home to
demonstrate against capital punishment or the execution of some specific
person whose cause might attract attention. Being a superstar hangman is
not an enviable position. A sizeable chunk of the populace pictured him as
a medieval executioner or as the avatar of Death himself. And Albert was a
simple, fundamentally moral man with a good heart. He reasoned that his
efforts did not add or subtract a single execution from the record.
Somebody would do the hangman's job, and it was better to have it done by
an efficient professional than by a hack who might blunder and leave a
live person dangling on the gallows in pain. It was difficult for him to
reconcile the man he knew himself to be with the man described by the
demonstrators outside his door.
To keep his sanity, Pierrepoint had to remain detached and aloof during
the hangings, to "leave himself outside" during the process, and to
complete his task as rapidly and efficiently as possible. That all changed
during the climactic incident of the film, the moment when Pierrepoint
loses his professional detachment and looks deepest inside himself, when
he is called upon to execute one of his mates.
This really happened. The man's name was James Corbitt, and he had sung
"Danny Boy" as a duet with Albert Pierrepoint on the very night he
murdered his girlfriend in a fit of jealousy.
In my mind, that is one helluva good story. Almost every single detail
is fresh and original and instructive. The ultimate bar for a truthful
biopic to clear is to become so fascinating that people would declare it
contrived if it were fictional. The Last Hangman clears that bar. It is a
rare to watch a film that has such a great story and is so edifying at the
same time. And the cast is excellent. A hearty "bravo" for Timothy Spall.
An unattractive, overweight, middle-aged actor rarely gets a role like
this, with a chance to be on screen during virtually every minute of a
film. Unromantic character actors may wait an entire lifetime and never
land such a role, but every once in a while fate requires the services of
someone like F. Murray Abraham in a starring role. The role of Pierrepoint
is Timothy Spall's Salieri, and he absolutely nails it.
If there is anything negative to say about the film, other than the
obvious point that the subject matter is relentlessly bleak, it is that
the film lacks sufficient tonal contrast between Pierrepoint's life as a
hangman and his life as a working class urbanite. Even at home he seems
like a particularly wretched Dickensian invention. His domestic
surroundings are just about as miserable and dingy as the prisons where he
works. Even a night at the pub with the lads seems to be a dark and
generally funereal endeavor. I think I would have liked to see him
outdoors on a sunny day surrounded by bright colors once in a while. He
seemed to need that kind of healthy stimulus to help decompress after a
particularly gut-wrenching execution, and frankly, so did I, because the
film put me into his point of view.
In fairness, I believe that the lack of atmospheric contrast between
the two halves of the hangman's life is not some kind of error made by the
director, but a calculated and deliberate statement. That interpretation
is supported by some obvious parallels as, for example, when both his wife
and a prison warder offer him his evening meal in a comparably joyless
But, dammit, I needed some relief from the constant morbidity.
Setting that aside ... this is an excellent film. Brilliant,
interesting, educational, and thoughtful ...
... just really, really grim.