D: Ian Merrick / 97m
Cast: Donald Sumpter, Debbie Farrington, Marjorie Yates, Sylvia O’Donnell, Andrew Burt, Alison Key, Ruth Dunning, David Swift
For a short time in the early Seventies, Donald Neilson (Sumpter) was the unheralded centre of public attention in the UK due to a number of sub-post office robberies he committed, some of which ended in murder. Neilson’s motive for these robberies was purely financial, but they rarely netted him much in the way of consistent reward for his efforts. Then he saw a newspaper article about a sixteen year old girl, Lesley Whittle (Farrington), who had recently inherited a fortune from her late father. Neilson planned to kidnap Lesley and hold her to ransom for £50,000. He located a drainage shaft where he could hide her, and on 14 January 1975, Neilson abducted Lesley from her bedroom, but his ransom plan foundered due to the involvement of the police. Worse was to follow: Lesley died while he was holding her captive, and he was forced to abandon his plan altogether. Her body was found two months later. Still, Neilson might have got away with even that, if it wasn’t for a completely unexpected turn of events that occurred in December of the same year.
For fans of true crimes stories, The Black Panther is something of a must-see, and something of a cause célèbre in itself. The movie has a measured, documentary feel to it that is reinforced by Joseph Mangine’s cinema verité-style cinematography, and Merrick’s matter-of-fact approach to the material. It’s a studious, unshowy movie that highlights the meticulous planning that Neilson put into his robberies and Lesley’s kidnapping, and then contrasts that planning with the various ways in which his plans managed to fall apart once they were carried out. If truth be told, Neilson was an average thief, and Michael Armstrong’s astute, carefully constructed screenplay shows Neilson to be a classic under-achiever, always looking to make it big but having too narrow an outlook or ambition to ever achieve any lasting success. Sumpter pitches Neilson as a man desperate to be in control, but lacking the wherewithal to maintain or build on what little control he does have, and which largely involves verbally abusing his wife, Irene (Yates), and daughter, Kathryn (O”Donnell). In marked contrast, Neilson treats Lesley with compassion and concern for her welfare, and treats her in a far better way than his own daughter. Again, the script carefully illustrates the various ways in which Neilson’s own moral code – however warped – was important to his own sense of who he was (at one point he sneers at the idea of being called the Black Panther).
While the psychological aspects of Neilson’s character are examined to a degree, and Sumpter’s performance supports a psychological approach to the character, where this would be acceptable by modern standards (and some might say it doesn’t explore Neilson’s habits and personality enough), back in 1977 the movie came under attack for daring to even portray Neilson and his criminal activities in the first place. In a case of “perhaps too soon”, the movie was deemed as exploitative (and it does have that vibe in places, particularly when Lesley is abducted from her bedroom), and was withdrawn from UK cinemas. But this is a movie that has a quiet power to it, and which is disturbing not for its violence but because Donald Neilson could be our neighbour next door, or a family member. It’s the otherwise mundane existence he leads that is unsettling, and the milieu he’s a part of. Merrick’s first outing as a director is now regarded – rightly – as a classic of UK true crime, and even now, over forty years on, it still has the ability to fascinate and appal at the same time.
Rating: 8/10 – a grim depiction of Donald Neilson’s exploits, The Black Panther uses its minimal production values to superb effect, and in doing so, emerges as a movie that is challenging to watch but necessarily so also; Sumpter’s performance, all pent up fury and phlegmatic stares, suits the movie to a tee, and Merrick’s confident direction proves to be exactly the right approach for the material, leaving the movie as a whole to get under the viewer’s skin and lodge there like an unwelcome guest.