BluRay/DVD Reviews

PIERREPOINT

By • Oct 30th, 2007 •

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Capital punishment in Great Britain was abolished in 1964. Prior to that date there were many Home Office appointed Hangmen, none more prolific than Albert Pierrepoint, who served from 1932 to 1956, during which time he hanged an estimated 433 men and 17 women.

Following his father Henry and uncle, Thomas, into the family ‘trade’, Pierrepoint became the number one hangman in Britain and his career brought him into contact with many notorious criminals including “Lord Haw-Haw” (“Germany Calling”), real name William Joyce; John George Haigh, the famous “acid bath murderer”; Derek Bentley, still a controversial case and the subject of the 1991 film Let him have it; Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, and again the subject of a movie, DANCE WITH A STRANGER (1985); gangster, Antonio “Babe” Mancini; Theodore Schurch, the last person to be executed for treason in Britain. Perhaps the most controversial case in Pierrepoint’s career was that of Timothy Evans, whose wife and baby daughter had been found murdered at their home at 10 Rillington Place, also the home of one John Reginald Christie. Evans was executed in 1950. Christie was later charged with the murders of seven women and hanged in 1953. Evans was eventually granted a posthumous pardon in 1966. Evans was played harrowingly by John Hurt in the 1971 movie 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, with Richard Attenborough as a chilling Christie (according to John Hurt on the DVD commentary for 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, Pierrepoint himself actually offered his services, under an assumed name, as technical advisor for the hanging scene in that film as the actual method was covered by the Official Secrets Act and, ever the professional, Pierrepoint wanted it re-creating accurately, and nor would he have wished his work to be misrepresented).

Pierrepoint’s body of work (if you’ll forgive the expression) was greatly affected by World War II, and he worked all over Europe including Germany, Cyprus, Gibraltar and Austria. It is believed that in 1945 he hanged 190 men and 10 women war criminals at Hameln prison in the British controlled sector of Germany, including Irma Greese, Elizabeth Volkenrath, Juana Boreman and the “Beast of Belsen”, Josef Kramer. During the war itself he had assisted his uncle Thomas in the execution of 16 American soldiers, condemned by Court Martial for murder and rape, at a military prison in Somerset.

“Enough about the facts and figures,” I hear you cry, “What about the movie?”

The movie carefully portrays Pierrepoint the man, not Pierrepoint the executioner. When he does his work he leaves Albert Pierrepoint outside. He is totally professional: he doesn’t care who they are or what they’ve done, all that matters to him is that they are human beings who have to die and he will achieve that as quickly and humanely as possible. All that matters to him is height, weight and physical condition. He is also portrayed as compassionate. When organising the order of the hanging of the German war criminals he selects a girl, who has just accused him of doing the Jews work for them, to be hanged first. His army assigned assistant agrees as she’s an ‘arrogant bitch’. ‘No,’ says Pierrepoint, ‘she’s the youngest. She’ll be the most frightened.’ And after the deed he insists that the remains be treated with due reverence: ‘They’ve paid the price. They’re innocent now. D’y’see?’
The publicity surrounding the Nazi war criminals disturbs Pierrepoint, as people applaud him in the street and buy him drinks in the newly acquired pub owned by himself and his wife. This isn’t right to him. What he does, his job, is private, he does not even discuss it with his wife. All this attention isn’t right. Also there is now an ever-growing movement opposed to capital punishment. To some he is a national hero, to an increasing number of others he is a murderer. He starts to question his role.
Turning up at a routine job, the night before the hanging as usual, he views the prisoner through the peephole in his cell door to ascertain his height, weight etc., only to find that it is his childhood friend and pub regular Tish, whose real name he had never known. Pierrepoint’s nickname was Tosh. The next morning they greet each other with their nicknames and this is the first time we see Pierrepoint drop his automaton-like manner when handling prisoners who are about to be hanged. He is gentle with his friend and tells him not to worry, he’ll look after him.
Timothy Spall, known as a dry, comedic actor on British TV (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) and usually the slimey, slightly dopey, comic villain in movies like Harry Potter and LEMONY SNICKETT, is mesmerising as Pierrepoint. He portrays a quiet, gentle man, and one who regards his profession with honour and pride. He is appointed by the Government; he is the best in the land. His is not to question the law or the decisions of the lawmakers; his is to do his duty to the best of his ability. And he does. Only when his own notoriety, the hanging of his friend and the changing mood of the country toward capital punishment creep into the melting pot, does his resolve start to falter, and only when the various prison authorities start haggling over payments for his services, something he sees as an insult to his position as Chief Executioner, does he consider resigning, which of course he finally does.
There are a few historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies (such as the main fact that he was not the last executioner. Capital Punishment continued for another eight years after Pierrepoint’s resignation – probably the reason for the title change) but this is the norm for this kind of movie, and on the whole the film is as accurate as any film covering over 20 years in 90 minutes. The acting is excellent in all quarters, particularly Juliet Stevenson, though Spall leads by a length. The period is very well captured and is a close cousin to VERA DRAKE in this respect.
The main thing about this movie is that it lingers with you and makes you want to think and learn more about its subject. With Pierrepoint’s ‘clients’ having played such a large part in cinema history, it’s time we had a movie about the man himself. And this is it.

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One Response »

  1. This film was a left wing propaganda film. I knew it would end with that famous quote of his opposing the death penalty. Why would any program that was unbiased end like that?

    Well, if you read about you see that pierrepoint takes back what he said in his autobiography and actually says he would do the job again for certain murderers. So this film is hardly accurate.

    It is just a liberal lie that the gullible fall for time and again.

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