Judge Erich Asperschlager has played a lot of Hangman in his life. Some nights he wakes up screaming, thinking of all the stick men he's killed.
"It's not been easy. I've got things in here, too, that I'd rather
weren't there. Oh, aye. I can keep them at bay, but they're waiting for
me…waiting for me to let my guard down…waiting all the bloody
Capital punishment is one of those controversial subjects that will always inspire debate—like abortion, or Kirk vs. Picard. Usually, a death penalty discussion focuses on the condemned prisoners: How can we be sure only the guilty get punished? Does capital punishment deter crime, or is it just thinly masked revenge? What should be done with those who commit the very worst crimes? We talk about the law, and the judges who sentence prisoners to death—but what about the executioners? What kind of person makes a living out of ending lives?
The 2005 film Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman is the story of Albert Pierrepoint (pronounced "peer-point," in case you wondered), perhaps the best known British executioner. Best known not just for his efficiency and skill, or because of his involvement in the high profile executions of Nazi war criminals, but because most executioners do their work anonymously. Though he became famous, Pierrepoint never asked to be a public figure. He just thought of himself as someone doing a job. His ability to separate himself from his "work" served him well for more than 20 years, but, as director Adrian Shergold's film shows, not even the best executioner is immune from its effects.
Based in part on Pierrepoint's autobiography, this film is a potent combination of talented cast, atmospheric direction, and unbelievable true story. As Albert Pierrepoint, the brilliant Timothy Spall humanizes the face of death—creating a character both sympathetic and tragic. Despite pacing problems and a plot twist that makes the film's final 30 minutes weaker than the first 60, the overall effect is both powerful and intimate.
Facts of the Case
From 1933 to 1955, Albert Pierrepoint hanged more than 450 people. Like his father and uncle before him, he worked as an executioner, traveling from prison to prison to carry out death sentences. Though the world at large thought he just delivered groceries, in his secret life, Albert became one of the most efficient and respected executioners working for the British government. After World War II, his reputation made him the first choice of Field Marshall Montgomery to execute Nazi war criminals in Germany. To Pierrepoint's dismay, he returned home a hero—his once-secret job having been compromised by his name and picture having been leaked to the press for publicity purposes. But while many saw his work as patriotic, members of a growing abolitionist movement reviled him as a "monster." Though Pierrepoint continued on in his work, it began to take its toll—from stresses at home, to one job that hit too close to home.
Though certain elements of Albert Pierrepoint's story were changed, or imagined, to fit the dramatic purposes of this film, most of what we see is true. The film begins in 1932 with two important moments in Albert's life: his training to become an executioner, and his first date with the woman who would become his wife. After performing infinitely better than a weak-kneed colleague at his first hanging, Pierrepoint's life jumps forward several years (and many pages in his execution ledger) later.
Pierrepoint's story is built upon the metronome beat of executions carried out with precision and efficiency. Even as the world changes around him, Albert's work is grimly regular. Each execution is the same as the last: he goes into the cell, turns the prisoner around, ties their hands, asks them to follow him into the adjacent gallows room, places a bag over their head, tightens the noose, and pulls the lever that opens the trapdoor and drops them to a quick death. Just because there's no blood doesn't make it less brutal.
All around him, people philosophize about the meaning of life and death, but Albert refuses to examine his job in those terms. He doesn't even want to know what crimes the condemned have committed. For most of the film, Spall plays the working Albert as aloof and focused. We hear his philosophy about execution once, told to an associate while they strip and wash a female corpse in preparation for burial. He does not question whether the prisoner should die—that much has been decided by a court of law—once their time has come, his job is to end it as quickly and humanely as possible. His detached concern continues beyond the moment of death, to the care and respect he shows the deceased. Once they have paid for their crimes, he believes, they are innocent. It's a beautiful philosophy in a way—until the reality of what he's talking about hits home. Of course, considering Pierrepoint personally hanged between 400 and 600 people (there's a discrepancy between the film's count and what other sources say), it's easy to understand his reluctance to think about it more deeply than he does.
Playing a character who not only lives what is essentially a double life, but often has to bury his emotions to do so is no easy task. Though many people will no doubt recognize Timothy Spall as Peter Pettigrew (a.k.a. "Wormtail") from the Harry Potter movies, the veteran character actor proves he can do a lot more than play lackey to He Who Must Not Be Named. Spall is onscreen for nearly every scene. He plays Pierrepoint at various stages in his adult life, dealing with various pressures including the mounting emotional burden of having killed so many people. He eventually breaks down, and when he does, it feels like a release twenty years in the making. That Spall is just as compelling playing Pierrepoint's clinical efficiency as he is his eventual emotional collapse is a testament to his talent. But Timothy Spall's is not the only impressive performance. It must be hard for supporting actors to stand out when a film focuses so completely on a single character, but Juliet Stevenson (Bend it Like Beckham) and Eddie Marsan (The Illusionist) more than hold their own as Pierrepoint's wife Annie and pub mate "Tish," respectively.
Visually, director Adrian Shergold and cinematographer Danny Cohen do a heck of a lot with relatively little. The film was shot on a tight budget in a quick 24 days, so Shergold has to rely on aural and visual cues, and clever editing to suggest the passage of time. The same constraints forced him to shoot most scenes as interiors. Borne out of necessity or not, these decisions add to the film's overall effect: The slipperiness of time underscores the rigid protocol of "the job," while setting the film almost entirely in enclosed spaces heightens the feeling of emotional claustrophobia. The audio-visual style is all about suggestion. A muted color palette gives the film a somber, historical quality; and the score—composed by Martin Phipps—is based on three-fourths time, inspired by the efficient choreography of the "death waltz" between Albert and the condemned. Neither the transfer nor the 5.1 surround are overly impressive, but their made up for in style.
There's nothing particularly exciting about the extras. Shergold's commentary is interesting at times, especially when he delves into history left out of the film, but it's nothing special. The only additional features are two deleted scenes—one an extended version of a sequence from the film; the other a puzzling piano performance.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, The Last Hangman suffers from the same pacing problems that inflict most biopics. We meet Pierrepoint just before his first hanging, while he still lives with his mother. Not five minutes later, he's married and several years into his career. No problem. It makes sense. And for most of the movie, the jumps forward in time are handled well. The problems come near the end, when (as seems to happen in these films) time starts moving way too fast—giving the last 10-15 minutes the feel of a montage that ends abruptly with the closing credits.
My other big problem with the film is more difficult to defend—and if you wish to avoid a major plot spoiler, you should skip the next two paragraphs. The emotional turning point comes in the final third of the film, when Pierrepoint has to execute a friend. It's the kind of "Hollywood" twist that makes you wonder why the filmmakers thought adding something so contrived to an otherwise thoughtful film was a good idea. The problem is, in this case, the "twist" happened in real life. Albert Pierrepoint really did execute someone he knew: a man who frequented his pub and that he was quite friendly with—a man whose name he never knew (they called each other by nicknames), and so he didn't know had been sentenced to death before the execution. It's an amazing story. But it doesn't make the sequence feel any less contrived (despite Timothy Spall's heartbreaking performance in the gallows scene). So, here's a head-scratcher: if part of a film's plot doesn't fit the rest of the film, is it okay to leave it in just because it really happened?
My final criticism hits on a pet peeve: ending films with a quote. The Last Hangman finishes with something Pierrepoint said later in his life, after he began questioning the effectiveness of the death penalty as accomplishing anything more than revenge. It feels tacked on, as if they felt the film needed an obvious "message." Until that point, I was pretty impressed that they opted to not take a firm stance either for or against capital punishment. The Last Hangman is compelling because it humanizes a seemingly inhuman profession. The ambiguity feels right because the story is about a real person. I suppose it's good to know Pierrepoint changed his mind about the death penalty, but if the only way to convey that information is by adding a quote maybe it shouldn't be in the film.
Overall, The Last Hangman is an impressive character study that takes an unflinching look at a unique profession. Even though the ending is weak compared to what comes before it, the film is worth recommending, at the very least, on the strength of Timothy Spall's brilliant portrayal of a complicated man.
Good thing I'm not in favor of capital punishment. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary by Director Adrian Shergold
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