Russian Market Movie Reviews: Pierrepoint aka The Last Hangman

Posted on by Dave Finch
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In this column, each week Dave Finch will review one of the DVDs that arrive on the shelves of Phnom Penh’s Russian Market at around the time they hit the big screens in the USA. “The Last Hangman” has an October release in the USA.

Albert Pierrepoint worked as a deliveryman for a local grocery store, lived with his widowed mom and married a nice girl who worked in sweet shop. Albert Pierrepoint ran a pub in Lancashire and performed comedy song routines with his friend Tish. Albert Pierrepoint, a mild mannered, salt of the earth type Englishman, also led a dark double life, one kept secret for many years , even from his wife.

From 1933 until his retirement in 1956, Albert Pierrepoint killed over 600 people. No, he wasn’t Britain’s most prolific serial killer; Albert Pierrepoint was chief executioner for Her Majesties Prisons, the UK’s most famous (infamous?) hangman. Given the subject matter, this is a movie that could have been utterly depressing but director Adrian Shergold paints a grim yet fascinating biographical portrait of a very complex individual and succeeds in keeping the spotlight firmly on the man without becoming distracted by preaching or crass attempts at moral or political messages. The moral complexities of the man and his profession are left for us, the audience, to consider.

And this is a welcome change from Hollywood type simplifications and 2 dimensional character studies, so common in cinema. This is substantially helped by a career best performance by Timothy Spall (who plays him with a humanity and compassion compellingly at odds with his profession). He claimed no interest in the guilt or innocence of the condemned, and demonstrated the utmost respect for the bodies of the executed. In one telling scene, for example, after he has been enlisted to hang convicted war criminals – dispatching 47 in one week- Albert learns that only 12 coffins have been prepared for 13 corpses and promptly goes berserk.

Albert’s morality was that a hanged man or woman had paid for their crimes and their corpses were therefore innocent and needed treating with dignity. As a man, Albert Pierrepoint comes across as meticulous professional, perfectly at ease with his grim job and concerned only to carry it out with precision and the best of his ability.

It is said he could assess how much rope was necessary to hang a man just by looking at him (or her) by measuring their height, weight and knowing that once dispatched the condemned would die by an instant snap of the neck rather than twitching on the end of a rope for up to thirty minutes. Pierrepoint also set a record in British prisons for carrying out an execution in less than 8 seconds from the moment he entered the prisoner”s cell, cuffed the prisoner, led them to the gallows, noosed them, hooded them and cranked the lever leading to their drop. He was simply the best at his job, which is why he was chosen by the British authorities to execute two hundred Nazi war criminals, the proceeds of which allowed him to buy his pub.

I don’t think this is a movie for everyone, I’m not even sure that non-Brits will enjoy it that much. For me, as an Englishman, its power was in portraying lost times, and Albert Pierrepoint certainly was a man of times long gone. This is a Britain I happily never knew. Not only a Britain of the death penalty but a Britain of austerity and Vera Lynn miserable-ness, a Britain of sooty tenements and prison like darkness, a Britain where unquestioning service and dedicated professionalism were the norm. This was a Britain “Where one did ones best”, whether the job was delivering the groceries or hanging a man by the neck until dead.

And when his pub friend Tish murdered his errant girlfriend in another ‘sordid little crime’, Albert hung him too and without question.

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