Running Time: 91 minutes
Rated: Rated M (moderate capital punishment theme, moderate sex scene, incidental nudity).
It's not the most attractive theme for a movie biography: the life and career of one of Britain's principal hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint. It is, however, a very interesting topic, especially for those who have strong opinions about capital punishment. The title of the film is simply, Pierrepoint. Timothy Spall, seen to advantage in many films, especially in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies and All or Nothing, is Albert Pierrepoint and Juliet Stevenson is his wife, Anne.
For someone in the audience who approves of capital punishment, there would be no difficulties with the film. Here is a straightforward presentation of a man who believes in what he does, does it efficiently and effectively and is commended for his skills. He performs his job for 23 years, executing over 600 people, the vast majority of whom would have been certainly considered guilty. The hanging of an innocent man, like the case of Timothy Evans who was executed when Reginald Christie was actually guilty, is to be seen as a regrettable exception.
For those who are opposed to capital punishment, there are the problems of how can a human being take the life of another so calmly and continue in the profession for almost a quarter of a century. Is this right? What effect does it have? Is this the story of a sadistic man? Psychopath? The problem is compounded by Timothy Spall's fine performance. Is the hangman made to seem lovable? And does this explain or excuse him?
This contrast between audience reactions seems to suggest the different personality approaches of more logical and principled opinions and judgments and those which are more subjective and personalised. This is not to suggest that a 'principled' person is automatically in favour of the death penalty and that someone more concerned about circumstances is automatically against it. But, it does seem that an objective person might well be considering the principles of crime and appropriate punishment which could lead them to approving of the death penalty while a subjective person may well be considering the circumstances of the crime and the possibilities of error. (That is why Dead Man Walking is such a helpful film on the issue as it dramatises all these points of view and the man to be executed is, in fact, guilty as charged).
In his day-to-day life, Albert Pierrepoint is your average reticent and private Englishman who, nevertheless, is comfortable enough in some relaxation with friends and neighbours. Pierrepoint tells jokes and sings in the pub on a Saturday night and for years after finishing as executioner, he and his wife run a pub (though, in the film, it is all her idea and she is the manager).
Nevertheless, he is a decisive, ordered and methodical man. He runs his life like clockwork, makes lists, has the ability to observe a person about to die and estimate immediately the length of the drop of the body according to height, weight and health.
While there is a brief scene of reserved British courtship when Pierrepoint visits Anne serving behind the counter in the grocery shop, the comparatively few scenes of their long married life are brief and matter-of-fact - except when Pierrepoint is in crisis, lets himself go in drink and bewilderment after executing a friend who used to sing and drink with him. But, it is Anne who cannot face the realities, does not want to hear or to know - and then their lives resume the quiet, staid, no-questions-asked style.
It is in his principles that we can understand, if not sympathise with, Pierrepoint. He accepts that to be a hangman is his vocation in life, that this is where he should be and that he should do his work with a sense of duty and responsibility. It was his father's work (and there may be some traces of expectations and/or rivalry when he breaks his father's record of rapid work in execution and some criticism that he drank). He helped his uncle as hangman during World War II. And those are the only personal aspects that he brings to the gallows.
The film opens with potential hangmen being instructed in the exact details of what they are to do: approach the condemned, swiftly turn them, bind their wrists, lead them into the room, hood them, fix the noose and pull the lever. Later, the hangman and his assistant take down the bodies, wash them and prepare them for the coffin. This is Pierrepoint's life and skill: exacting, objective work, justified by the fact that the condemned have been found guilty and that the government has contracted him to carry it out. He has no contact with them beyond what he does. But, he brings, he says, a respect: that they have paid for their crimes and that this is an end to it. He reveals no last words or happenings at the scaffold. He does not talk about his work and it even takes some years before Anne works out the reason for his frequent absences.
Testimony about Pierrepoint asserts that he was not sadistic, that he did not 'enjoy' his work, that there was no aberrant psychology. Pierrepoint did publish an autobiography in the 1970s - he died aged 87 in 1994 - and finally stated that he did not believe that capital punishment acted in any way as a deterrent. The film ends with a quotation that he observed that execution was only vengeance. This may have been the fruit of reflection on his life and the changing public opinion in the later 20th century.
Where the film tests audience response concerning capital punishment is in the sequences where Field Marshall Montgomery asks for Pierrepoint personally to execute Nazi war criminals. He wanted to show that British justice was swift and humane in the way they hanged these men and women. Here is the capital punishment argument for the audience. These are not the murderers and rapists found within ordinary society. Should these monstrous and cruel officials have been killed? or given life imprisonment? Again, Pierrepoint treats these condemned in exactly the same way as all the others he hanged.
However, the film makes much of Pierrepoint's friendship with a likely lad, Tish, and his wife's disapproval of Tish's carrying on with a married woman. It is only the night before that he discovers that the Jim Corbitt he is about to hang is Tish. His treatment of Tish on the gallows is more kindly and considerate than any chaplain's. This does provoke an emotional crisis. But, he is soon able to put it aside and continue on. The film paints a portrait of Pierrepoint - and makes us think and makes us wonder how we should feel about Pierrepoint and his calling.
Rialto Out September 6
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.