Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Hanging Around With Eric

Being an Eric Portman fan, I recently allowed myself the luxury of watching two of his films back-to-back. Unbeknownst to me at the outset, these two films have a rather macabre connection. The first of my double bill was ‘Wanted For Murder’ (1946).  Eric stars as a hangman’s grandson, who claims that his grandfather possesses him and makes him go out befriending and then strangling young women.  Dulcie Grey co-stars as the woman whom he loves and is trying desperately not to murder. The tension is ramped up when he lures her onto an island in the Serpentine (this film is an excellent guide to the necking hotspots of ‘40s London).  Faced with the police and Dulcie’s new bloke, he drowns himself and in this way puts himself out of his own misery.  Special mention must be made of the comic relief in all this – Stanley Holloway’s policeman is an absolute gem.

The second film was much darker and heavier – even the presence of Bill Owen couldn’t lift the spirits.  In ‘Daybreak’ (1948) Eric plays a hangman who inherits his estranged father’s barge business.  He marries, but keeps his prison visits from his wife, telling her that he goes away on barge business. His nights away allow a young Danish bargee to force his attentions on Eric’s wife, with devastating results.

A capital picture of Eric by @aitchteee
Both films explore the consequences of capital punishment on those who had to execute it.  ‘Wanted For Murder’ is perhaps more of a populist murder story – but the idea is still there – how did the children and grandchildren of hangmen cope with the knowledge that their loved one was a legal murderer?  Is the ability to calmly end a life in the genes? 

Hangmen themselves were only human too…the continual despatch of other human beings no matter what their crimes must have had consequences on their mental health.  In ‘Daybreak’ it leads to a life of deception and secrecy – something else to maintain alongside the other concerns that might have disturbed the sleep. ‘Daybreak’ also highlights another issue with capital punishment – when the Danish bargee is condemned to hang for the murder of the hangman – who is in fact still living, simply having reverted back to this other identity. Olaf isn’t innocent – but he didn’t actually commit a murder.

Hanging would continue to be used as a punishment until 1964 – but these films show that concerns were beginning to be felt, that would eventually lead to the end of capital punishment in the UK.

The History Usherette's Second Seat, Third Row by Sarah Miller Walters tells the story of A Canterbury Tale's 1944 audience.  Available as an e-book or printed version on Amazon here: