Adrian Shergold’s Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, from a screenplay by Jeff Pope and Bob Mills, provides the strongest cinematic statement against capital punishment I have ever seen, but I doubt that many American champions of this barbaric practice will ever see this soberly and creatively written, directed and acted biography of real-life British hangman Albert Pierrepoint (brilliantly incarnated by Timothy Spall).
During his tenure, Pierrepoint is said to have executed more than 600 people in the years between 1933 and 1956, the year that he resigned as a matter of conscience. This decision was made shortly after he executed one of his closest friends and drinking companions, James (“Tish”) Corbitt (Eddie Marsan), with whom Pierrepoint occasionally teamed up as Tosh in their impromptu barroom act.
It was also shortly after he was spat upon by demonstrators against capital punishment following the notorious Ruth Ellis execution, though she was hardly the first woman that Pierrepoint had executed.
During the period when Pierrepoint carefully preserved the anonymity of his professional labors, he courted and married Anne Fletcher (Juliet Stevenson), a calculating shop girl with whom he had an apparently sexless marriage. Pierrepoint’s moment of fame and his consequent loss of anonymity came when he was summoned by wartime British hero Field Marshal Montgomery—or “Monty” (Clive Francis), as he was known to the populace—to perform “civilized” executions of Nazi war criminals responsible for the atrocities at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
There were no expressions of fear or pleading on the faces of these Nazi men and women as there had been on the anguished faces of many of the British civilians as they awaited the hood and noose of the hangman. It is in the varied camera angles that are employed to illustrate the horror accompanying the explosive opening of the trapdoor under the doomed convicts that Pierrepoint’s deadpan demeanor vividly exemplifies what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil” in her famous essay on Eichmann.
The film ends with the printed statement Pierrepoint made in 1974, nearly 20 years after his resignation from the job of executioner: “The fruit of my experience has this bitter aftertaste.
Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.” Even the supposedly less barbarous method of lethal injection cannot escape the taint of governmental murder. If only the evocative power of Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman to persuade were not destined to be the latest example of preaching to the converted.