The Black Panther Review
Donald Neilson died late last year, aged 75, whilst serving five concurrent life sentences at Norwich Prison. In 1976 he’d been convicted for kidnapping, blackmail, burglary, firearm possession and four murders. Three of his victims were postmasters or their spouses, each the result of bungled night time raids on community post offices. The fourth was a result of the botched kidnapping; 17-year-old Lesley Whittle was found hanging in complete darkness in a disused ventilation shaft in Staffordshire. Such were the severity of his crimes that Neilson was placed on the ‘whole-life tariff’ list of prisoners sentenced to die in prison, an appeal to reduce his sentence having been turned down in 2008. Others on that list include Rose West, Ian Brady and Peter Sutcliffe.
Shortly after his arrest Neilson would provide the subject for a pair of true crime books. The first, The Black Panther Story by journalist Steven Valentine, was published the same month as he was sentenced. The second, Harry Hawke’s Capture of the Black Panther: Casebook of a Killer, arrived at the end of 1978. Both made it to the shelves safely and without a fuss. Yet when first-time director Ian Merrick produced a feature film account of Neilson’s crimes the reaction was far from favourable. The tabloid media, which had sensationalised the man - dubbing him the Black Panther - and perhaps even hindered the police investigation, called for it to be banned. Even the BBC’s Newsnight, which Merrick agreed to be interviewed on, levelled accusations that his film was “sick”. Consequently a national theatrical run was cancelled and the producer-director lost a great deal of money. He went to American to work with Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, whilst The Black Panther slipped into obscurity.
Almost 35 years after the film disappeared (an initial run was limited to five British cinemas, one of which cancelled as a result of freezing weather) the BFI has seen fit to resurrect and rehabilitate Merrick’s directorial debut. Now entirely free of the tabloid hype and hysteria, we are allowed to see The Black Panther as it originally intended. This isn’t some salacious cash-in on Neilson’s infamy but a serious attempt to understand the man and his crimes. The subject matter undoubtedly has the potential to inspire a piece of opportunistic trash, yet this couldn’t be further from what we see on the screen. Merrick and screenwriter Michael Armstrong (best known for his 1970 horror flick Mark of the Devil) relied almost solely on transcripts and interviews, in some cases quoting dialogue verbatim. Their intentions, therefore, were much closer to a work such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood than they were to the latest exploitation thriller playing in the fleapits.
This adherence to the facts means a close contact with Neilson throughout. It is only around the 70-minute mark that we get a shift in perspective thanks to a need to encompass the police investigation as well. Up until that point we are solely within the head of the man himself. However, dialogue is sparse and a voice-over is non-existent leaving us to simply watch and draw our own conclusions. Importantly Neilson is never once glorified - quite the opposite, in fact. We find a man who, for all his meticulous planning, never manages to execute one of these burglaries correctly. Indeed, it was his very incompetence which killed four people. That’s a dangerous combination and one which we must square with information presented. This is a husband and a father as well as a murderer. This is a man with a background in the army who also shows signs of racism, self-absorption and taciturnity. His workshop is full of books on warfare and military history and seemingly contains an arsenal of weaponry. The coffee table in the front room holds a Commando comic book as well as the daily newspaper. And not once does he show the slightest twinge of emotion when it comes to the killings. All of these details are presented without comment, left for us to discern and analyse.
Neilson is played by Donald Sumpter, a prolific actor though not one who’s overly familiar. He’s appeared in everything from the original Doctor Who series and British sex comedies to, more recently, Game of Thrones and the David Fincher version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Such continued diversity should demonstrate his qualities as a performer, not to mention his ability to disappear into his roles. Sumpter isn’t a movie star and with that comes a welcome lack of self-awareness. There is no attempt to make Neilson likeable or appealing nor is there any baggage from Sumpter’s other roles to interfere with this portrayal. Adding to this sense of a blank slate is the decision not to make plain the motivations behind these crimes. Once again we are trusted to draw our own conclusions. Is he replacing his former military experiences with self-composed scenarios as a means of replicating their adrenaline? Indeed, does he even intend for them not to go fully to plan so as to test himself and his ability to cope in extreme situations? He clearly enjoys living off the land when called upon and existing in a state of pure isolation.
Sumpter’s lack of star appeal also shows up the aversion to movie gloss throughout The Black Panther. He’s backed up by a cast who either had little experience or were associated more readily with television work. As with Sumpter that provides a host of solid turns as well as maintaining the film’s low-key qualities. There’s no showboating nor are there any scene-stealing cameos. The approach is wholly respectful, both to the intentions of the screenplay and to the subject matter as a whole. Merrick’s direction recognises that there isn’t a need to dress this material up. The violence is stark, sudden and makes an immediate impact. Not once does the camera linger. Even a scene as simple as Neilson following Whittle down the street as he plans his kidnap is remarkable in its dramatic force. Merrick understands the power of these moments and lets them speak for themselves.
This combination of the shocking and the ordinary is ultimately the reason why The Black Panther succeeds. It demystifies Neilson without ever diminishing just how awful his crimes were. There is no celebration here nor is there any exploitation. We simply have a matter-of-fact portrait of a sad, disturbed individual who would ruin the lives of many people. For all the tabloid fuss at the time of its production, the film actually reclaims Neilson from the Black Panther persona they had created. He isn’t worth the hyped-up copy and paper-shifting headlines. He’s just a man, and a pathetic one at that.
The latest edition to the BFI’s Flipside range is a typically impressive affair. The region-free disc contains both The Black Panther and another true crime tale from the late seventies, Bob Bentley’s short Recluse. This being a dual format edition we get both a Blu-ray and a DVD with all content being identical save for the latter also containing The Black Panther’s video trailer which only exists in standard definition. (You can view the trailer below.) A Blu-ray disc was supplied for review purposes.
It’s amazing to see The Black Panther looking so good. Ian Merrick himself provided the BFI with an original 35mm internegative for transfer purposes and it’s in wonderful condition. Some instances of dirt and damage have been removed leaving an almost spotless presentation. Colours are exceptionally strong and the amount of detail is very good. Merrick supervised the transfer and also specified a 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio as was intended rather than the full-frame ‘open gate’ ratio in which it was shot.
The soundtrack is similarly impressive. Dialogue is crisp and clear, those rare moments when the sound design has upped particular details are easily discerned and the score by Richard Arnell (with electronic music by David Hewson) comes across especially well without clouding out the other elements. Interestingly we also have an alternative French language option, again provided by Merrick himself. The BFI have done this kind of thing a number of times now - Primitive London also had a French soundtrack, whilst each of their five Pasolini Blu-rays has come with an optional English-language dub - and in doing so allow for a little extra insight into the films’ distribution histories.
The additional film, Recluse, was made in 1979 and won the BAFTA for Best Short in 1981. Fans of the Flipside may also be pleased to hear that Requiem for a Village’s David Gladwell worked as an editor on this production. It concerns itself with a triple family killing that occurred in Devon in 1973. Two elderly brothers and their sister were found dead, an event which would later inspire John Cornwell’s 1986 book Earth to Earth. Director and co-writer Bob Bentley concerns himself with the family’s last day, opting for a slow-burn approach over the course of Recluse’s 28-minute running time. In many ways the approach is quite similar to The Black Panther - matter-of-fact, respectful, low on exposition and explanation - and as such it makes for a fitting companion. It’s also great to finally have the film available as it had pretty much disappeared following a Channel 4 screening in 1984. Ten minutes were available to view on Bentley’s website, but that was only ever a taster.
Despite Recluse being in a rougher shape than The Black Panther this is nonetheless another impressive transfer. Bentley and his director of photography Nick Knowland supervised the transfer, which is here taken from the original 16mm negative. Minor damage is constant and the film stock naturally results in a grainier image than The Black Panther’s, but the level of clarity is exceptional. Bentley’s participation also led to him discovering his original silent recce footage from 1978 - also filmed on 16mm - which was shot prior to the screenplay being written. It’s presented here for the first time with Bentley providing a commentary. Naturally this provides extra context to the short, as does his contribution to the booklet on its making.
Speaking of the booklet, Merrick and Armstrong also provide their reminiscences alongside contemporary reviews and a new essay on both films by James Oliver. Full credits are also provided as are a range of illustrations taking in everything from newspaper clippings and lobby cards to a sample of the original script and VHS art.