Albert Pierrepoint was the last British hangman, his retirement bringing a full-stop to the profession. Between the years of 1933 and 1955 he executed 608 people (by this film’s count), including most notably German war criminals after the trials in 1945. Adrian Shergold’s 2005 Pierrepoint or The Last Hangman gives us an incredibly intimate portrayal of an individual torn between rigid functionality and human compassion.
Straight to the site of the action, the film opens with Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spaul) undergoing a training session at Pentonville prison. All the specifics are laid out: how to restrain the prisoner, place the sacking over their head and judge the appropriate length of rope for the particular individual – “get it wrong, and you’ll pull ‘is head orff.” The scenes in the prison are, on the whole, extremely clinical, with the lack of emotion displayed being the most terrifying thing.
These cold scenes are juxtaposed with warm scenes of rural England, with Pierrepoint courting a lady at a sweet shop (Juliet Stevenson). Here we immediately see the warmth of his character, his love of pork chops and his domestic life with his mother.
In a wonderfully handled time-lapse, this turns into a domestic scene with his new wife, Anne from the sweet shop. However during this time lapse, it is also revealed that Pierrepoint takes painstaking notes on the executions he has carried out, never failing to miss an entry. Other than this, Albert keeps his work and home life entirely separate. I mean, you’d have to, right?
This sets up the key tension in Pierrepoint: how can a man who routinely kills other people live a normal life? There is a wholehearted professionalism in the man, driven by a certain competitiveness to boot. We learn that Pierrepoint’s father was also a hangman (ah…destiny) and that he was renowned for the speed of his executions, going from restraining the wrists to pulling the lever in 14 seconds. The shadow of the father looms over Albert, who manages to destroy his father’s record, processing someone for death in a mere 7.5 seconds.
For Pierrepoint death is routine; despite being carried out by an individual, the approach is strictly mechanical. Attending the theatre, Pierrepoint watches a news reel on the German war criminals who he has been nominated to execute, including Fritz Klein or ‘Doctor Death’ who as the narrator reels off was responsible for “scientifically murdering” thousands of Jews. Although the motives are poles apart, Albert is haunted by a personal similarity, and we are invited to consider to what extent those who kill en masse have expunged their humanity.
Pierrepoint however makes a complete180’ once he has taken his prisoner’s life, choosing to lay out and wash their bodies himself, because the mortuary “won’t take care of them, would they?” In Pierrepoint’s mind, death is the price that is paid for their sins, so after death, the body deserves human dignity and respect. This is what keeps Albert from becoming a monster, but nevertheless the moral framework that he brings to his work only adds to his conflicted personality.
There is yet another side to Pierrepoint; the jovial man who sings bawdy songs as a comedic duo with his friend Tish (Eddie Marsan). In a stroke of ominous irony, during their performance Pierrepoint places a white cloth over Tish’s head, immediately reminiscent of the white sacking used in the execution room. This warm Pierrepoint, who eventually agrees to buy the local pub with his wife and form a pillar of the community, wrestles constantly against the numbing effect of his work.
The whole thing is very tightly written, with no scene going amiss. Even those ‘sub-plots’ that seem slightly redundant on the first watch are perfectly designed to feed into the denouement. Timothy Spaul does an incredible job of capturing Pierrepoint’s morally fraught existence, which only gets all the more impressive as the cracks begin to show.
There is an element of ‘ITV drama’ in the aesthetic, which at times prevented me from becoming fully immersed, however this is a very cosmetic issue and was quickly ignored once the story builds in complexity. What Pierrepoint delivers is a fantastic human-interest story that is deserving of a film in itself.
Added to this is an entire moral debate surrounding capital punishment and its effect on the individuals involved. The masterstroke of the movie is that this is never in the foreground and never explicitly judged. Instead, we are merely greeted with a portrait of a man through which both these historical and human considerations can play out. And this is what makes Pierrepoint a tightly-plotted, riveting achievement.