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Well hung

Mala Noche and Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman
By GERALD PEARY  |  June 13, 2007

GUS VAN SANT’S FIRST has Tim Streeter as a dimpled 20ish gay slacker beatnik.

Set in Portland, Oregon, and shot in black-and-white and 16mm on a $25,000 budget, Gus Van Sant’s arresting first feature, the 1985 Mala Noche, was a raw, libidinous tale of homosexual desire, with Tim Streeter as a dimpled 20ish gay slacker beatnik walking the streets in a trashy, ripped raincoat, a kind of William Burroughs in training, though obsessively hitting on Hispanic teenage boys instead of copping heroin. There’s a new, restored print, and the Brattle Theatre is giving that its area premiere this week, June 15-21.

Streeter’s Walt toils behind the counter of a skid-row convenience store, a job that allows him to cruise the young illegals who’ve arrived in town by freight car seeking manual work. His eyes feast on Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), and soon he’s trying to buy a night of love with this sensuous-mouthed Mexican lad. But Johnny isn’t into “queers,” so he protects himself by hanging at all times with his amigo, Roberto (Ray Monge). Turns out it’s Roberto who wants to fuck Walt.

That’s about it for narrative until the melodramatic climax, which involves gun-toting racist cops. Lots of the charm of Mala Noche lies in its scruffy, subterranean ambiance, with walk-ons by real-life local poets and wino down-and-outs. The film is a long way from new-millennium gay cinema: you can imagine an on-the-road visit from Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, but not from Will and Grace.

Albert Pierrepoint is the guy across from you on the bus, the one so everyday-homely you probably wouldn’t notice. But as we learn from Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman — which opens this Friday at the Kendall Square — Mr. Pierrepoint (a superb Timothy Spall) has an unexpected profession for a paunchy, beaver-toothed, weak-chinned Brit. Adrian Shergold’s film is the inside story of Britain’s last professional hangman, who over many decades introduced countless Englishmen, and the occasional Englishwoman, to the gallows. He was so good, and so fast, that at the end of World War II he was flown to Nürnberg to do in the daily lot of convicted Nazi war criminals.

Pierrepoint acted the same whether dealing with a Hitler commandant or an at-home murderer who’d axed a girlfriend. His only concern was the efficient execution of his job — breaking a neck in the most skillful manner, then afterward washing down the naked torso so it would be ready for proper burial. It all ended in 1955, with a rope around the neck of Ruth Ellis (whose tragic story was told in the 1985 film Dance With a Stranger). He had the support of his grocery-clerk wife (Juliet Stevenson), who took over the books, and he griped whenever a reprieve canceled a lucrative hanging.

So what should we think of Albert Pierrepoint? I wish Shergold had had the courage to be truly Brechtian, to let the audience decide whether the man was just doing his job. But the film’s pacifist, anti-death-penalty point of view can be dreadfully obvious in what’s otherwise a fascinating case study.

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