Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's Most Notorious Hangman
This was the official website for the 2005 film, Pierrepoint. The content is from outside sources including some reviews from RottenTomatoes.
Original title: The Last Hangman aka
Duration: 95 min.
Country: United Kingdom United Kingdom
director: Adrian Shergold
Script: Jeff Pope , Bob Mills
Music: Martin Phipps
Photograph: Danny Cohen
Studio: Granada Television
Gender: Drama | Biography . Years 30
TOMATOMETER CRITICS 77% | AUDIENCE 85%
Following in the footsteps of his father and uncle before him, Albert Pierrepoint joins the "family business" in 1934. He rises through the ranks to become the most feared and respected executioner in the country, hanging more than 450 people in his lifetime. Living a double life as a master hangman, and a grocery deliveryman and loyal husband, Pierrepoint's obsession to become the "Number One" executioner in the country results in his selection as executioner for some of Britain's most infamous murderers and Nazi war criminals. But this brings notoriety, shattering Pierrepoint's guarded anonymity and turning him into a minor celebrity. When public opinion turns against capital punishment, Pierrepoint becomes a scorned man and is ready to give it all up, but fate has other plans in store for him. A devastating, true-life story of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's most notorious hangman.
Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman is a 2005 British drama film about the life of Albert Pierrepoint, one of England's most prolific executioners.
2020 Update: "I was intrigued by the idea of gaining fame and notoriety only to have public opinion turn on you when the political climate changes, because I relate to this circumstance only in reverse. I work for a service that handles medical waste disposal and as a result of the cringes I got when telling people about it, I stopped talking about it. But this year, with the advent of the COVID shutdowns everywhere, everything changed. Suddenly I'm an essential worker and my job is seen as necessary and even heroic. I really liked this movie for a lot of other reasons, but identifying with the tectonic shift that changes your life makes it even more compelling to me." Dan Dorfman
June 22, 2007
Ruthe Stein Top Critic San Francisco Chronicle
Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman' Drama. Starring Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Eddie Marsan. Directed by Adrian Shergold. (R. 98 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)
Had Albert Pierrepoint ever been a contestant on "What's My Line?," he surely would have ended up with a hung panel. Pierrepoint was Britain's busiest executioner, hanging more than 450 men and women, including Nuremberg war criminals, from the early 1930s to mid-'50s. He's a creepy subject for a biopic, and "Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman" is a peculiar little film -- grim and disturbing yet perversely riveting in illuminating the exact details that go into administering this method of capital punishment and why he was so splendid at it.
Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall, Wormtail in the "Harry Potter" series) possesses an unerring eye for sizing up a prisoner's neck and estimating how much rope and pressure will be required for a quick and painless end. Like a professional runner, he's obsessed with speed and sets a record of 7 1/2 seconds between whisking his prey from a cell to pronouncement of death.
But after watching one neck after another snap, you start to feel like part of the voyeuristic crowd gathered at public hangings centuries ago.
Part of the movie's problem is a failure to get inside Pierrepoint's head and understand his motivations besides a sense of professionalism and competitiveness with his dad and uncle, who preceded him in the grisly profession. Pierrepoint can walk away from a dead body and go home to his wife, Anne (the brilliant British stage star Juliet Stevenson), or to his local pub where he and a pal he knows only as Tish (Eddie Marsan) bring down the house with their rendition of "Making Whoopee."
The dramatic highpoint of Jeff Pope and Bob Mills' original script should be when the hangman stares through a peephole at his next casualty and sees Tish. But Spall, whose performance is so quietly contained that you begin to wonder whether Pierrepoint has a pulse, displays little emotion.
He's more energetic talking to Anne, who conveniently pretends not to know what her husband does for a living -- it's supposed to be top secret, like 007 -- while plotting how to capitalize on it. Once his cover is blown, she seizes the opportunity to open a pub and parade him around as a curiosity. While masquerading as demur, Anne is made of steel, and Stevenson slowly and subtly brings this out.
The movie continues to be relentlessly glum as Pierrepoint is hounded by groups protesting capital punishment. It's not apparent how director Adrian Shergold could have lightened things up even if he'd been so inclined.
-- Advisory: Disturbing images.
November 2, 2007
*** ½ Roger Ebert Top Critic Chicago Sun-Times
Timothy Spall has been graced by nature with a face at once morose and discontented, although when he smiles, it is like the first day of spring. In "Pierrepoint, the Last Hangman," he plays Albert Pierrepoint, the last official chief hangman for the United Kingdom, credited with at least 435 executions. He kept a meticulous journal, with neatly ruled columns for name, date, place, length of rope and total time required. He was an exemplary civil servant, the best at his trade, and when the right man was required to hang more than 200 Nazi war criminals, Field Marshall Montgomery personally asked him to perform the task.
By the nature of his job, a hangman remains anonymous, and Pierrepoint preferred it that way. His everyday job was delivering provisions for a grocery wholesaler, and when an execution came along, he traveled to the prison by train, spent the night, and was given his expenses and a hot meal in addition to his fee of about $8. Pierrepoint was the third member of his family to work as a hangman and took pride in his system of calculating the exact length of rope to use on each condemned prisoner. By measuring their height and weight and estimating their neck muscles by their occupations, he aimed to kill them instantly by breaking the spine between and second and third vertebrae. He was thus spared the embarrassment of a client still alive and strangling, or a dead one with his head snapped off.
Adrian Shergold's film of Pierrepoint's life paints a portrait of respectable working-class mediocrity with a secret at its center; Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake" (2004) was a similar, if more nuanced, portrait of a quiet housewife who was an abortionist. While still a grocery drayman, Pierrepoint, already past 30, shyly proposes marriage to possibly the first girl to go out with him to the cinema. Annie (Juliet Stevenson) continues to work in a tobacconist's and keeps a comfy little home for him, all teapots and footrests, china Scottie dogs, evenings around the wireless, and for dinner, "your favorite -- pork chop."
The movie is unflinching in watching Pierrepoint at work. He always follows the same routine, designed as a time-and-motion study to escort the prisoner from his cell to his doom with no time to realize what is happening. He handcuffs the client, says "follow me, sir," leads the way across the corridor and leaves the prisoner standing on the trap without quite realizing it. A white hood is whipped from Pierrepoint's jacket pocket, put over the client's head, followed by the noose, and a lever is pulled. Albert's father's average was 13.5 seconds per execution. Albert dispatches one client in less than eight.
He is a man of principle. He believes the condemned have been judged, sentenced to pay their debt, and when they are dead, have paid it. He bathes and prepares their corpses with care and respect, and is outraged when a prison comes up one coffin short. His man has paid his dues and deserves proper handling, he shouts, as angry as we see him. Often after work, he'll stop at the pub (which eventually becomes his) and join his pal Tish (Eddie Marsan) in a vaudeville song. One night, Tish proudly turns up with a hot date, falls in love with her, is jilted and performs a quavering solo of "Jealous Love."
Spoiler warning: After an especially hard day, Albert comes home and the solicitous Annie suggests he have a drink with his mates. "I don't have any mates," he says. It is true. He hardly knows anyone at the pub and doesn't even know Tish's real name, which is why it is a shock when he discovers he is expected to hang him. One review of the film calls this development "a contrived subplot," but Wikipedia reports that Tish really did strangle his unfaithful lover on an evening when he and Albert sang "Danny Boy" at the pub, and Albert really did hang Tish. All that seems contrived is that the hangman would not have heard about the murder and anticipated the result.
Pierrepoint boasted of sleeping soundly after each execution. His tunnel vision permitted no doubt; his was a difficult job, but necessary and worth doing correctly, with full respect for each client. Only after he arrived in Germany and had to dispatch 13 Nazis on his first day did he begin to weaken. It was too much like an assembly line. And when he returned home, the national tabloids outed him and he was cheered in the streets as a hero, then later targeted by opponents of the death penalty. "It isn't right," he said to Annie, who was a little tickled to have photographers on her doorstep.
He eventually retired, moved to the seaside with Annie, continued as a celebrity, and wrote his memoirs, in which, Wiki says, he concluded: "Executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people. The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off." This realization came a little late for his 435 or more clients, but at least he gave them the very best service.
The key to the film is in the performances by Spall and Stevenson -- and by Marsan. The utter averageness of the characters, their lack of insight, their normality, contrasts with the subject matter in an unsettling way.
What is most intriguing about the film is that while it is not in favor of capital punishment, it doesn't make Pierrepoint into an evil or deranged man, just a dutiful workman. Every year, dozens of civil servants are honored on the Queen's List, but Pierrepoint, whose service to the crown was more essential than many door-holders and pen-pushers, labored on year after year in the shadows, insisting on his hot meal.
One of the best performances of the year as Spall just weaves his spell perfectly as an unassuming man doing the devils bidding.
If someone is innocent and we execute him, then we execute an innocent person.
If someone is guilty but genuinely remorseful now, then we execute a reformed man.
If someone is guilty but incapable to be genuinely remorseful because he is a psychopath, then we execute someone who is incapable to care about the wrongness of his crime. He may have intellectually known that killing is wrong, but psychopaths emotionally did not feel it was so.
Imagine yourself in shoes of a psychopath - you are told that if you step on an ant it's wrong and you'll be sentenced to death, but you don't feel "wrong" stepping and killing ants. And in the impulse of a moment decided to squash a few. Then the society hangs you for that and you just don't feel why you'd ever deserve that.
Now substitute ants with people for a psychopath and see why, while they have to be removed from the rest of the society when they commit crime, they cannot be put be morally put to death.
Great performance by Timothy Spall as Pierrepoint. Good support from Juliet Stevenson and Eddie Marsan.