The Movie Binge

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

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Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman opens briskly on a kind of intro-to-hanging class being taught inside of a gloomy stone prison. Among those in attendance is Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall), a mild-mannered grocery delivery man yearning to let out his inner executioner. He's a quick study too. Instruction is superfluous. He knows straightaway what length of rope is going to get the job done. Turns out hanging is the family business and Pierrepoint's old man was a pro in the field. His mom doesn't approve of his career choice, tells him never to bring it up. This isn't a problem, since the executioners work in anonymity and utmost secrecy and Pierrepoint is furthermore capable of an extreme psychic detachment that allows him to fulfill his duties unburdened.

Meanwhile, he gets a girlfriend named Annie (Juliet Stevenson). Two seconds later she's his wife. Pierrepoint goes to work making good on the family name. He kills with efficiency, develops a system of “variable drops” that snaps the second and third vertebrae, ensuring quick, clean death. At one point, he expresses a desire to best his father's old record of 14 seconds. But that's nothing. Thanks to his ever-evolving methods, Pierrepoint cuts that time in half. None of this escapes the notice of his superiors, who enlist him to execute a great number of German war criminals after the Second World War. This is a turning point in his life and also the film. Pierrepoint kills dozens of Nazis a day, and there are no fewer than two hanging montages set to classical music. It's a fascinating digression and could've been the whole movie, I thought, but it's handled without nuance and things quickly move on.

Due to the high-profile nature of his Nazi gig, Pierrepoint's cover is blown and he's greeted with cheers on the home front. He and Annie use the dough to buy a pub, and here the film, never subtle in the first place, begins telegraphing its intentions and painting in much broader strokes. I'm usually oblivious when it comes to these things, but when Pierrepoint's lovelorn singing buddy announces—with regard to his heartbreaking slut of a girlfriend—that, well, there's only so much he can take, I knew instantly how things would end for that chap. By now it's clear that years must have passed, but the actors look the same and the film's one-note claustrophobia, used to good effect early on, becomes a liability in the overwrought final minutes. In this shrunken version of events, Pierrepoint's sangfroid crumbles just as a wave of anti-death penalty sentiment begins to crest. People spit on his car rather than buy him drinks.

The performances in Pierrepoint are uniformly fine. Spall, in particular, is good, revealing the turmoil beneath the hangman's bland exterior in convincing and understated ways. But the film nears its conclusion feeling both rushed and drawn out, and it hammers home its obvious message in ways that overshadow the complicated moral struggle of Pierrepoint the man.

Oh and it's a true story, which I didn't know until the end, thanks to my own self-imposed approach to the Movie Binge, which is never to do any research or review-skimming beforehand.