The Last Hangman


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

On a scale of 1-10, how interested are you in a biopic of a famous hangman? About a three? Maybe lower? Yeah, I guess that would be typical. The premise certainly offers the potential for a morbid, depressing film which lapses into proselytizing for one point of view or another.  Surprisingly, that is not the case. Oh, it's not a feel-good movie. It must dramatize a couple dozen hangings in real time, and you can guess how pleasant that is, but it does not obsess over the unpleasant physical details like the loss of bowel control. It is basically a psychological study, and a consistently interesting true story.

Albert Pierrepoint was a second generation hangman who prided himself on his work. He developed an efficient system of weights and rope lengths which allowed him to kill the condemned person instantly, and he had a purely businesslike approach to his job. He never employed gallows humor to break the tension. He believed that all those executed should be treated with as much respect as possible, and after the execution he insisted that their bodies be given the same treatment one might give the body of a beloved family member. His theory was that the criminals had been sentenced to death to pay for their crimes; therefore, their account was fully paid as soon as they died, and from that point forward they were entitled to the same treatment as any other Englishman.

He remained anonymous from 1932 to 1945. Even his wife didn't know what he did on the weekends, at least not officially. That's the way the system worked in England. A hangman was not a full-time professional from within the penal system, but a part-timer who was trained and hired in secrecy, then summoned by the state when his services were required. There would be several such people "on the list" at any given time, and their assignments were rotated. They would travel to the place of execution on a Friday evening, receive a meal and a bed, and conduct the execution the next morning, leaving them free to pick up their stipend and return to their normal lives with a minimum of disruption while attracting a minimum of suspicion. Albert was just a grocer so far as anyone knew, and that's exactly the way he liked it. Even under the shroud of anonymity, it was difficult enough to be a hangman, bearing the psychological burden of an endless string of face-to-face encounters with those about to die.

His secret was revealed after the war when the British government needed to execute a vast number of Nazi war criminals. Field Marshall Montgomery asked the penal experts for their best man, and Pierrepoint was their choice. On behalf of England, Montgomery personally asked Pierrepoint to take the job. For a humble grocer turned pub owner, a personal audience with the legendary Monty himself, coupled with recognition as the nation's best at his "other" job, was an exhilarating honor, but the ultimate price of it was dear. As a result of the Nazi executions, the press learned Pierrepoint's identity, and he became quite a national celebrity, often treated to a spontaneous "he's a jolly good fellow" when recognized. Being a celebrity hangman was all well and good right after the war, but the supply of Nazis was not unlimited and when all the war crimes had been adjudicated, Pierrepoint went back to life as usual, absent his former cloak of anonymity. Those last six or seven years of his career proved to be distressing. Knowing who he was, mothers would come to him to intercede on behalf of their sons. Protestors would parade outside his home to demonstrate against capital punishment or the execution of some specific person whose cause might attract attention. Being a superstar hangman is not an enviable position. A sizeable chunk of the populace pictured him as a medieval executioner or as the avatar of Death himself. And Albert was a simple, fundamentally moral man with a good heart. He reasoned that his efforts did not add or subtract a single execution from the record. Somebody would do the hangman's job, and it was better to have it done by an efficient professional than by a hack who might blunder and leave a live person dangling on the gallows in pain. It was difficult for him to reconcile the man he knew himself to be with the man described by the demonstrators outside his door.

To keep his sanity, Pierrepoint had to remain detached and aloof during the hangings, to "leave himself outside" during the process, and to complete his task as rapidly and efficiently as possible. That all changed during the climactic incident of the film, the moment when Pierrepoint loses his professional detachment and looks deepest inside himself, when he is called upon to execute one of his mates.

This really happened. The man's name was James Corbitt, and he had sung "Danny Boy" as a duet with Albert Pierrepoint on the very night he murdered his girlfriend in a fit of jealousy.

In my mind, that is one helluva good story. Almost every single detail is fresh and original and instructive. The ultimate bar for a truthful biopic to clear is to become so fascinating that people would declare it contrived if it were fictional. The Last Hangman clears that bar. It is a rare to watch a film that has such a great story and is so edifying at the same time. And the cast is excellent. A hearty "bravo" for Timothy Spall. An unattractive, overweight, middle-aged actor rarely gets a role like this, with a chance to be on screen during virtually every minute of a film. Unromantic character actors may wait an entire lifetime and never land such a role, but every once in a while fate requires the services of someone like F. Murray Abraham in a starring role. The role of Pierrepoint is Timothy Spall's Salieri, and he absolutely nails it.

If there is anything negative to say about the film, other than the obvious point that the subject matter is relentlessly bleak, it is that the film lacks sufficient tonal contrast between Pierrepoint's life as a hangman and his life as a working class urbanite. Even at home he seems like a particularly wretched Dickensian invention. His domestic surroundings are just about as miserable and dingy as the prisons where he works. Even a night at the pub with the lads seems to be a dark and generally funereal endeavor. I think I would have liked to see him outdoors on a sunny day surrounded by bright colors once in a while. He seemed to need that kind of healthy stimulus to help decompress after a particularly gut-wrenching execution, and frankly, so did I, because the film put me into his point of view.

In fairness, I believe that the lack of atmospheric contrast between the two halves of the hangman's life is not some kind of error made by the director, but a calculated and deliberate statement. That interpretation is supported by some obvious parallels as, for example, when both his wife and a prison warder offer him his evening meal in a comparably joyless ambience.

But, dammit, I needed some relief from the constant morbidity.

Setting that aside ... this is an excellent film. Brilliant, interesting, educational, and thoughtful ...

... just really, really grim.


* widescreen anamorphic








4 BBC (of 5 stars)
3.5 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
73 British Print Consensus  (of 100)
78 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
68 (of 100)


7.6 IMDB summary (of 10)


Box Office Mojo. Irrespective of the film's merits, it had no market. It appeared in only three theaters in the USA, and grossed less than a million dollars worldwide.


  • As you might imagine, the nudity in this film is not titillating in any way. Elizabeth Hopley's character provides full frontal nudity and the top half of her buttocks as a hanging victim.

According to the director's commentary it is a body double.



Pierrepoint was not literally "The Last Hangman" in the UK. He resigned in 1956, eight years before capital punishment was abolished. The "last" were actually two hangmen who presided over simultaneous executions in different prisons in 1964. Pierrepoint was, however, the last hangman to execute a woman, and the last man to hold the official title of Chief Hangman for the United Kingdom.

After his resignation Pierrepoint eventually became an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, and outlined his reasons in an autobiography, "Executioner: Pierrepoint":

(1) Capital punishment was not an effective deterrent. The Corbitt incident drove home the fact that hanging was no deterrent to crime because Corbitt, like most of the people Albert executed, killed in the heat of the moment without having planned it. Corbitt's actions, like so many others, could not have been affected by the possibility of punishment. Pierrepoint argued that capital punishment is not designed as a deterrent, but as revenge. "Executions solve nothing," he wrote, "and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people."

(2) The appeal and reprieve process was unfair. Some men executed by Albert turned out to be pardoned posthumously, but they were denied reprieves, although at least one of those cases (Derek Bentley) prompted a vast outcry for clemency. On the other hand, several reprieves were granted in accordance with political expediency or other motives unrelated to  the merits of the cases.


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It has minimal box office appeal, so that is the correct rating, but I would give it three and a half stars on a traditional four star system.