This is a grim yet utterly riveting film about the infamous executioner and hangman, Albert Pierrepoint. Timothy Spall delivers a compelling and outstanding performance and a surprisingly complex executioner, in surely his finest ever performance. The delightful and enchanting Juliet Stevenson is perfect as Pierrepoint's wife, Annie.
Like his earlier Danielle Cable: Eyewitness (2003), the Granada TV director Adrian Shergold has surpassed himself in his favourite genre of crime. This offering was filmed at Ealing Studios, of all places.
Pierrepoint is a fruit and veg delivery man in the humble, northern English streets of Rochdale, normally, except when he gets the call to go and hang someone, usually in London or HMP Strangeways in Manchester. He is unsurpassed as a technician of death, perfectly estimating the length of rope, etc., depending on the height and build of the person to be executed. You could call him the L S Lowry of killers, an ordinary man with a certain skill when it comes to looking at and handling other people.
He begins as a sort of trainee - who would be the instructor is this line of work? - yet sees each of his peers fade once confronted with the absolute horror of their new job, leaving him the consummate professional, always on hand when the Home Office needs a job done. For Pierrepoint, it is a vocation.
Pierrepoint always takes a deep professional pride in his work, seeing the condemned person as deserving of dignity and respect in death, no matter what their deeds in life. This creates a strange paradox, as he is forced to be clinical and brutal in helping that person to their end. However, given his professional expertise, that end is much quicker and more comfortable than other executioners and methods.
So, after 13 years in the job - merely half way through his career, which saw him hang an incredible 608 people (including the innocent Timothy Evans, and also Ruth Ellis, amongst others) - Pierrepoint is called upon to be the official British hangman at the Nuremberg Tribunals in the aftermath of World War Two. This is where he has to dispatch truly monstrous and evil people; extermination camp guards and the like. This is also where, for me, the film steps up a level.
In Nuremberg, Pierrepoint has to dispatch up to ten war criminals a day. It is a massive job on a scale for which he did not go prepared.
The British army have constructed a scaffold above ground unlike the usual discreet prison cell and trap-door gallows and the guilty are to go by the couple, side-by-side. And this is all to take place in one enormous, cavernous and very apt, if you excuse the pun aircraft hanger. The British have created a vast cathedral of hanging, the scaffold as its pulpit and Pierrepoint as its archbishop of retribution.
Nevertheless, Pierrepoint performs his dreadful task with professional brilliance, at great pains to insist on the dignity of the guilty once dead; he is horrified when some are expected to be disposed of without even a wooden coffin: 'No, that's not right', exclaims Spall, the epitome of northern disdain.
For me, the shot of the film the true emblematic, classy shot that shows the difference between Pierrepoint and everyone else, not least his assistant (a military attaché) sitting beside him as they relax with a cigarette after yet another execution takes place in this hanger, the cathedral of execution, the height of Pierrepoint's career.
In a close shot, Pierrepoint and his military assistant sit at either end of a table, enjoying a smoke. The military man attempts a philosophical discussion of the magnitude of what they've done. Pierrepoint has no comprehension at all, separated as he is from his assistant by the contents of the rest of the screen the scaffold in the background, deserted after a day's work.
Pierrepoint was a lonely man yet had a typically northern showman's instinct; with his friend Tish, they perform a Flanagan and Allen style musical medley in the pub. Tish is his only friend in the world, probably more so than his wife.
The most touching scene of the film is at the end when Pierrepoint has to execute James 'Tish' Corbitt (he never knew his true name until then).
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