The Last Hangman (UK, director Adrian Shergold): Between 1933 and 1955, Albert Pierrepoint was Britain’s Chief Executioner, responsible for more than 600 hangings. Timothy Spall gives a devastating performance as a decent man engaged in the loneliest of professions. The title is somewhat misleading. Hangings were carried out until 1964, but Pierrepoint was the last man to hold the official office of Chief Executioner.
As the film begins, Pierrepoint is proud to be offered a job as a hangman, following in his father’s and uncle’s footsteps. Since he’s only needed every few months, he maintains his job as a grocer’s deliveryman and keeps his moonlighting a secret from his friends and even his wife (Juliet Stevenson). He is very good at his new profession, and is determined to complete each job as quickly and humanely as possible. It’s a bit odd seeing him trying to shave seconds off the time required for each execution, much like a professional athlete trying for a world record. That is, until you realize that his desire is for the prisoner to have as little time as possible to be afraid. After each execution, it falls to Pierrepoint to cut down the body and prepare it for burial, and it’s touching to see the tenderness he displays. After the execution of one woman, he tells his assistant, “She’s paid the price, now she’s innocent.”
Pierrepoint’s reputation grows and after the war, he’s flown to Germany by the British Army and placed in charge of executing scores of Nazi war criminals. As a result, his secret is leaked to the press, who now broadcast his identity as the finest hangman in the land. With his earnings from these jobs, he and his wife decide to open a pub(!), which does a booming business, thanks in part to his notoriety.
But the job begins to take a terrible toll. Even after he tells his wife about his second profession, she doesn’t want to hear about it. Nobody really wants to hear about it. When protestors start demonstrating against capital punishment, Pierrepoint finds himself the target of their ire. Doubts begin to creep in to destroy his previously unshakable faith in what he does. By the mid-1950s, Albert Pierrepoint resigns his position (ostensibly over unpaid fees) and completely reverses his own position on capital punishment, though he initially keeps his opinions to himself. In his 1974 autobiography, however, he finally confesses that the whole experience had left a bitter aftertaste for him and that he felt that capital punishment had “achieved nothing but revenge.”
Though this is a fairly standard biopic and “issue film,” the performances of Juliet Stevenson and especially Timothy Spall are remarkable. Pierrepoint’s determination to remain detached takes a terrible toll on his life and is bound to fail eventually. The obvious conclusion is that killing corrodes our humanity, whether the killer is a murderer or an executioner on the state’s payroll.
Note: This film was retitled Pierrepoint upon its release.
More on Albert Pierrepoint: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Pierrepoint