Shot against an economic background in which Britain faced imminent financial meltdown, a humiliating IMF bailout and runaway inflation in 1976, Ian Merrick’s “The Black Panther” - a true-crime reconstruction of the events leading up to and surrounding the abduction and death of sixteen-year-old Lesley Whittle by violent ex-squaddie and small-time armed robber Donald Neilson – aptly summed up the parlous state of the British film industry in the late-seventies, simply by dint of the stark fact that this self-financed, guerrilla-style low-key venture was, at that time, the only film actually in production on the soundstages at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood. The upside of such dire industry inactivity was that Merrick was able to gain the services of many of the top British technicians and a reasonably large soundstage at a knockdown price - but his luck ran out when the tabloid press caught wind of the film’s imminence: its story then becomes simply yet another depressing episode in the British media’s tireless ability to generate scandal and opprobrium around certain films when the subject matter is potentially juicy enough to generate headlines. Just as Michael Powell’s career was prematurely ended in Britain after the odious treatment of his 1960 film “Peeping Tom”, so Merrick - who generated the backing for this low budget project himself on an independent financial model he’d seen applied successfully in New York - was forced to leave the country for a career in America after finding himself faced with the prospect of total financial ruin once the film’s national distribution was cancelled at the last minute thanks to a heated campaign by the British press, even though the 300 print release had already been paid for. The film thereafter sank into obscurity, and has been little seen by anyone since.
Now the BFI rectify that injustice by making “The Black Panther” the next subject in its essential Flipside strand – a series of duel-disc, HD mastered releases which aims to find and present obscure and neglected British-made film gems that ‘have slipped through the cracks of cinema history’, providing them with the very best possible presentation and including as many other text analyses and film materials as possible to place them in the appropriate context of the times in which they were made. The fact that the film got its first limited release mere months after the trial which saw Nielson sentenced to five life sentences for the kidnap and murder of Whittle in 1975 and for three murders carried out in 1974 during night-time armed raids on several family-run post office outlets, meant that it almost inevitably became part of the media circus which had by that time been generated around Neilson’s cruel crimes; dubbed the Black Panther by an opportunistic TV reporter, Neilson became for a short time as infamous a killer as the Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, although, unlike them, he is little remembered today (Neilson died in prison, Christmas 2011). But the fact that the media played a less than exemplary role in the way events panned out during Neilson’s reign of terror, and that their behaviour becomes a clear subtext to the film’s methodical account of the case, leads one to suspect that that also played its part in the vituperative tabloid and TV campaign against the film, culminating in a humiliating (for the director) appearance on Newsnight in which Merrick was accused of cashing in by making a exploitative “sick” film.
As it turns out, nothing could have been further from the truth. Screenwriter Michael Armstrong (already no stranger to controversy being the director of the once-banned “Mark of the Devil”) eschews all the usual screenwriters’ tricks for fleshing out and expanding the facts to make them work as conventional drama, and instead meticulously sticks to a straight recounting of the case as gleaned from police reports, press coverage, Neilson’s daughter’s testimony and trial transcripts. There is hardly any dialogue throughout the film except when necessary, and it pointedly avoids dramatization of potentially the most exploitative element of the case (the moment of Whittle’s actual death) since no-one was there to see it and only Neilson’s unreliable account of what happened was available. Merrick meanwhile, employs a steady, undemonstrative docu-drama approach, occasionally using hand-held camera but mostly relying on starkly framed imagery shot in a palette of drizzly greys and muted greens, which authentically sum up dreary 1970s Britain and Neilson’s pinched and drab lifestyle with a simple but incredibly effective directness. The film is a stripped-down, unadorned presentation of Neilson the man - based on nothing more than what is known of his actions during the period 1972 to 1975, when the killings and then the kidnap of Whittle took place. The effect is uncannily similar to that which was achieved by John McNaughton in “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”(1990) and one wonders how big an unrecognised influence Merrick’s neglected film might have actually had on true-crime drama in general. There’s even a startlingly prescient sequence in which Neilson, revelling in his media-created image as the Black Panther, stands in front of a full-length mirror in his shed-like planning room and mimes pulling his sawn-off shotgun on a victim like some sort of cardie-wearing Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” - a film which was only released while “The Black Panther” was still in the process of being shot.
The key to the film’s success, stripped as it is of all other drama generating effects, is the central performance of Donald Sumpter which foregrounds Neilson’s damaged psyche and brings an unsettling intensity to the portrayal. In Sumpter’s hands we see Donald Neilson presented as an isolated, taciturn ex-soldier with dead eyes and a perpetual sneer fixed on his face, even when he’s just sitting in front of the telly next to his wife and teenage daughter with a cup of tea. Unable to function outside the strict military disciple of the army, Neilson conducts family life like an always-on-duty drill sergeant, but without having the vocabulary to express himself fully, even with this limited but inappropriate form of interaction. Chastising his daughter (Sylvia O’Donnell) for imaginary dirt on the cutlery or exploding in rage at his wife if his cup of tea is too hot, he’s like a bumptious Sergeant Major ticking off a new recruit. Neilson is really just a dull and uncommunicative bully, apparently unable to relate to other people in any fashion that doesn’t involve barked orders and aggression; yet occasionally, inexplicably, flashes of softness occur, as though a thick block of cloud had miraculously cleared and sunlight briefly poked through the gap, only for it to be quickly extinguished and the cold hard pitiless stare to return moments later. The scenes in which Neilson’s family life are portrayed are unsettling yet somehow desperately sad, with the young daughter and her mother (Marjorie Yates) exchanging brief, tense glances at each other on the settee in the living room while Neilson sits with unyielding military rigidness in his armchair or at the dinner table and stares impassively, caught up in his own silent bubble of simmering resentment, surrounded by his beloved gun magazines and copies of Readers’ Digest. While Neilson’s wife and daughter continue to exist in a state of unspoken denial about the dysfunctional state of their family, he supplements the meagre earnings he takes from his job as a taxi driver with robbery, telling his family that his long stretches away from home are spent working for cash-in-hand on carpentry jobs around the country. Neilson actually did this for fourteen-years, but the film starts in 1972, at the point when he first switched from home burglaries to raiding local post offices with extreme menaces; his time away from home during these periods is spent living off the land, completely alone, using the survival skills he must have learnt in the army, in order to evade the possibility of any witness’s connecting him with the scenes of his crimes.
It quickly becomes apparent that these escapades are the only times when Neilson truly feels comfortable in his own skin: making camp fires, expertly skinning and roasting game then covering his tracks, setting up elaborate Heath Robertson alarms to warn of intruders and kitting himself up with a needlessly massive arsenal of weapons - from knives strapped to his leg and taped up his sleeve to razor blades hidden in cigarette lighters. Accordingly, the raids he conducts on these small but potentially lucrative post office outlets are planned to the nth degree, with appropriate military level exactness, from Neilson’s boxy shed hideaway at home: an escape from his wife and daughter where he spends hours surrounded by his military paraphernalia, leafing through scrapbooks that recall his army days and pouring over maps as he plots every detail for each of his robberies after casing each establishment in advance. The second thing that becomes apparent, though, is Neilson’s complete inability to cope with any deviation at all from a set plan once a raid is in progress, even when circumstance might require it. His first attempt is a complete farce, despite all the careful setting up, which ends with the home-made black hood being torn from his face after a clumsy altercation, revealing his identity (and negating the constitutionally racist Neilson’s ludicrous attempt to set a false trail by affecting a West Indian accent!); thereafter, each of the ex-soldier’s robberies are marked by increasingly inept bungling and accidents which he compensates for by resorting to pitiless violence against anyone who stands in his way. Here, without in anyway courting sensationalism, Merrick’s film captures the desperate seediness and grim horror of Neilson’s actions, as we follow him into a succession of homes in search of the keys to the post office safes he so coverts. Most of the postmasters or mistresses were elderly residents who lived above their small home-run establishments, and Neilson becomes more and more violent and threatening, creeping, fully hooded and dressed from head to toe in black, into pokey residential bedrooms to thrust his sawn-off shotgun into his victims’ faces with a belligerently unfeeling invasiveness. Sequences such as the one in which a teenage son of one disturbed family wakes in bed to find a hooded face leaning over him, caught in the light from the upstairs landing; or in which another victim hears shuffling in the room and looks up from the bed to see a hooded head rising from the floor where Neilson has been going through the pockets of a pair of trousers which have been slung across a bedside chair, are presented with an awful matter-of-factness which renders them far more powerful and truthful than a more conventionally suspenseful approach might have instigated. Almost even more chilling still, is Neilson’s subsequent reaction to the media interest in the case once his ineptly conducted raids start to result in loss of life - carefully pasting each sensationalist news clipping account into a special scrapbook which he then returns to periodically -- leafing through it with a proud smile and clearly relishing his media tag ‘The Black Panther’, as he begins to take delusional pride in his own image of himself as a criminal mastermind.
It was a newspaper report about a teenage Shropshire heiress which first fastened Neilson’s rapacious attention on sixteen-year-old Lesley Whittle (Debbie Farrington). He spent the next three years planning her kidnap and the ensuing ransom demand of £50,000. During that time he repeatedly stalked her and plotted every aspect of her coming incarceration. Once again, Merrick doesn’t need to resort to theatrics to hype up the case: the ordeal this girl must have suffered is terrifying enough without over-elaboration. Roused from her bed naked and at gunpoint; bound, gagged and blind-folded and driven, in the middle of the night, to a disused drainage shaft in the rain-sodden Staffordshire countryside where she was left alone, tethered to a metal ladder for days on end by a wire noose around her neck – these facts are all that is required to drum home once again Neilson’s pitiless brutality and they are accentuated further by the film’s depiction of Whittle as being around the same age (and very similar in appearance) as Neilson’s own daughter. The film’s subsequent cataloguing of the painful, almost comical series of accidents, misunderstandings and mishaps which ensued during Neilson’s hopeless attempts to extract the money from Whittle’s much older brother (Andrew Burt), play like the blackest imaginable “Fargo-style” crime farce, but every detail is true. Everything goes wrong: the cheap tape recorder Neilson attempts to have Whittle record his ransom instructions on in doesn’t work; and when he tries to phone the brother at a pre-arranged time with instructions on where to take the suitcase of ransom money, the phone box is in constant use and he misses the appointment. Most shockingly, the press actually turn up to interview Whittle’s brother while he’s still waiting at the pre-arranged spot to receive the ransom call, even though no one was meant to know the Police had been involved since Neilson’ note, left at the house, had threatened Lesley would die if the authorities intervened.
The film doesn’t dwell on this aspect of the case at all and leaves viewers to reach some obvious and unavoidable conclusions on their own. But Police collusion with the press was clearly a factor, a truth which gives the film an unexpected contemporary relevance. The idea that the media was content to place a sixteen-year-old girl’s life in jeopardy for the sake of headlines, and that elements in the Police Force must have been responsible for leaking the information brings a whole new level of grimness to the episode, casting a much harsher light on the media’s moral grandstanding over the film’s alleged exploitation of the case. Chance, bad luck and incompetence by all parties leads to Neilson’s intricate plan quickly collapsing in total disarray, a process which the film documents with a deadpan remorselessness; Neilson’s ensuing panic and paranoia somehow leads to Whittle’s death, and the film presents an extremely plausible account of what most likely happened, given everything we’ve previously seen of Neilson’s character and his tendency to lose the plot when the pressure tells. The film ends with an account of his chance arrest, a few years later, after he over-reacts to a routine stop and check by a police patrol car upon missing his night bus home. The press involvement in the case, and its creation of the media image of the Black Panther killer appropriately come together in the film’s final image – a recreation of Neilson being overpowered with the help of some passers-by who hold him down while the policemen handcuff the struggling killer to a drainpipe, leaving him, teeth barred, looking much like one of the caged felines adopted as his sobriquet, while gawping onlookers outside a chip shop across the road gaze upon the spectacle, just as they’d been doing throughout the last five years of Neilson’s media-covered reign of violence and intimidation …
Sumpter’s riveting performance, Armstrong’s immersive script and some cool and detached direction from Ian Merrick together with Richard Arnell’s unobtrusive but frequently chilling score mark “The Black Panther” out as a massively underrated gem of British crime cinema. Presented in its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio, as the director intended it to be seen despite it being shot ‘open-gate’, the film’s muted palette is faithfully reproduced here. There are occasional speckles and heavy grain during some of the darker night-time scenes, but generally the film looks in excellent shape and the transfer seems like a faithful recreation of the movie’s original look. The English mono audio track is clear and in good condition and there is also a French audio track (with English subtitles) included.
To play alongside the main feature the BFI have unearthed another rare 1970s film gem, also based on a true story. In the case of Bob Bentley’s “Recluse”, a 28 minute short released in 1979 as a support film to Peter Yates’ “The Janitor”, the events depicted are an imaginative interpretation of what might have preceded the discovery of three bodies, each found shot to death, of the elderly inhabitants - two brothers and their sister - of West Chapel Farm, Devon, in the 1970s. While “The Black Panther” illustrates one approach to true life reconstruction (reporting the actual events as closely as possible), “Recluse” was an attempt to unearth the essential truth behind an incident concerning which no one knew the exact facts for sure. Bentley’s film finds its authenticity, though, from being entirely shot at the original location of the tragic discovery. The disc also includes 8 minutes of recce footage with commentary, which Bentley shot in the summer of 1978 at the original West Chapel Farm location, a few years after the deaths. It turns out that just about everything we see in the film is exactly how it was left by the dead inhabitants, making the work a ghostly shadow play of the Luxton’s tragedy using the landscape, unaltered farm buildings and the house in which they lived as its inspiration. Beautifully played by veteran actors Maurice Denham, Derek Smith and Ann Tirad, Bentley’s film becomes a hauntingly poetic examination of memory and three people still living in a past which has left them trapped in this place like moths at a window, unable to survive without each other or the crumbling farm that made them the people they’ve become. Given the film’s emphasise on landscape and the way in which it moulds the lives of the people that live on it about its contours, David Gladwell’s presence as the editor here is fitting since his “Requiem for a Village” (also a previous flipside release) has many parallels with the approach taken by Bentley. The film has also been mastered in HD from its original 16mm camera negative and despite speckles and occasional blemishes throughout looks stunningly detailed.
This duel-disc edition features Blu-ray and DVD copies, with the latter also including a non-HD trailer for “The Black Panther”. There’s an excellent booklet of writings packaged with it that includes: a detailed essay by film critic and historian James Oliver, Ian Merrick writing on the making of the film and the subsequent campaign against it by the media (including his memory of his painful grilling on Newsnight), Michael Armstrong on his approach to the screenplay and how the whole experience left him feeling like ‘some horrible peeping tom or gutter journalist’, the original review from Monthly Film Bulletin, Bob Bentley on the preparation and making of “Recluse” and a contemporary review of it from What’s On in London. In addition, the beautifully presented booklet also features production stills from both films, front of house stills and the 1980s video box cover for “The Black Panther”, a reproduction of an article from Screen International reporting on “The Black Panther” controversy and the opening page of Armstrong’s original screenplay. All in all, another unmissable release from the BFI’s exemplary Flipside strand gets the usual thorough treatment here; warmly recommended.
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