On a dank London morning in January 1953, Derek Bentley was hung for murder.
More accurately, he was hung for shouting the words, “Let him have it, Chris” to a 16-year-old accomplice pointing a revolver at a police officer. The cops had surprised the duo during an attempted late-night warehouse break-in.
To the police, Bentley’s five words were a command to fire and led to a constable getting shot through the head. The 19-year-old Bentley, however, insisted that his remark was a desperate plea to his pal, Chris Craig, to surrender and hand over the gun.
Director Peter Medak’s powerful movie—named after the first four of those words—focuses not just on the tragic events of that night, it also examines everything that led up to them, as well as the heartbreaking aftermath, including Bentley’s execution three months later.
Oh, and by the way, it’s based on a true case—one that helped turn public sentiment against capital punishment, which was finally banned in Britain in 1969.
Let Him Have It takes place in the gritty London section of Croydon. In an era of poverty and rationing, the local teens idolize the town thug. He drives a fancy car and dates the prettiest girl. When he gets sent to prison for 12 years, they mourn.
Mostly, these impressionable adolescents take their cues from American gangster movies. They name their group The Bogeys and dress in black overcoats and wide-brimmed hats, making them appear as much like Yeshiva students as mobsters. Chris, the punkish 16-year-old leader, watches Angels with Dirty Faces and comes out mimicking James Cagney’s staccato speaking style and shooting his cuffs. They even refer to police as “the coppers.”
They’re boys playing men. But this is more than a kid’s game of cops and robbers. The lads swap revolvers like baseball cards during recess. England, we learn, is awash with black-market weapons brought back by soldiers from World War II. So when the teens’ shoplifting sprees evolve into theft, they’re packing heat. And this, of course, leads to the tragic episode that night on the roof of the warehouse.
Derek (Chris Eccleston), the center of the story, is a docile young man with epilepsy and an IQ of 77. He’s got a loving and supportive family, but he lacks the will to stand up to bad influences. So when Chris and his crew offer friendship, Derek goes along. He embraces a set of brass knuckles (called “knuckle dusters” in the film) that Chris gives him—not that he ever intends to use them.
You can see where this is going. Derek and Chris end up on a warehouse roof, and the police response leads to the cop getting killed. Chris, as the 16-year-old triggerman, is spared the death sentence because of his age.
Derek is not as lucky. His trial seems less concerned with justice than vengeance. The prosecutor describes the events as “a Chicago-style gun battle.” Derek is sentenced to be hanged—even though it’s clear that he lacks the mental capacity for responsibility. And, beyond that, the trial reveals that Derek surrendered to police custody on that roof 20 minutes before the gunshot, never made an attempt to escape and credibly appeared to be imploring Chris to surrender his weapon right before the fatal shot was fired.
The back end of the movie covers the desperate campaign by Derek’s family to overturn his death sentence before it can be carried out. They gain momentum among the public and the press, as well as the support of 200 members of Parliament. But the British home secretary, who could petition for clemency, turns a deaf ear.
As the days tick down, you’ll start to sweat. As the hanging occurs—graphically and efficiently—you may find yourself in tears.
Derek Bentley’s case did not end with his trip to the gallows. It quickly became viewed as a miscarriage of justice and emerged as a focal point in the debate over capital punishment. His family continued to seek a full pardon for Derek. It finally was awarded in 1998, years after both of his parents and his sister had passed away.
HIT: In a movie full of strong performances, one worth noting is that of Tom Courtenay, who plays Derek’s dad. William Bentley is a loyal, working-class Englishman forced to show astonishing bravery even as the institutions he has always believed in are letting him down. Three decades before Let Him Have It, Courtenay played a young man falsely accused in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.
MISS: Maybe it’s just us, but that double-decker that rumbles by in every scene in every neighborhood appears to be the exact same bus. Maybe the producers could only afford to rent one.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Medak asks us to imagine what it means to plead for your life before a man dressed in one of those ridiculous wigs, whose manner tells you he’s taken the title of ‘Lord’ all too literally. . . . Let Him Have It is a superb piece of craftsmanship. It’s also not an easy movie to watch.”—Charles Taylor, Salon.com
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE The Krays, Medak’s 1990 biopic about the sadistic twins who ran London’s underground in the 1960s.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Once may be all you can handle. The movie will leave you gloomy for days.
CASTING CALL: Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid, and Nancy) was hired to direct, but was replaced by Medak after Cox insisted on filming the movie in black-and-white.
BEST LINE: Derek’s final thoughts, dictated to a sympathetic guard, are haunting: “Always keep your chin up, Mum, and tell Dad not to grind his teeth. The truth of this story will come out one day, and on that day a lot of people will get into trouble.”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Low, although Derek’s hanging at the end is gut-wrenching.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: At least four songs have been written about the Derek Bentley case over the years. The most well known is “Let Him Dangle” by Elvis Costello.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Edward Hardwicke, who plays the principal of the “approved school” (read: reform school) where preteen Derek spends three years, previously co-starred as Mr. Watson in a 1986-94 BBC series about Sherlock Holmes. If you haven’t watched those shows, starring the late Jeremy Brett, we recommend you check them out.
GOOF: Chris Craig’s gun, which he proudly shows off, is a five-shot revolver. On the warehouse roof, however, he fires six rounds.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The black kerchief that is placed on the judge’s head before he sentences Derek. This was an old English tradition in which judges donned a black cap before invoking the death sentence.
BODY COUNT: Two—an innocent policeman and an innocent young man.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”