‘The Black Panther’ – DVD review

The Black Panther
DVD/Blu-ray
Released 28th May 2012

The other BFI Flipside release this month is the outstanding The Black Panther (1977). This is a razor sharp true-crime drama (somewhat comparable in its forensic tone to the great 1948 film noir He Walked By Night) that meticulously charts the infamous killing spree which the unhinged former squaddie Donald Neilson, aka the Black Panther, carried out across England in the mid-1970s, culminating with the kidnapping and murder of a 17-year old girl, heiress Lesley Whittle, in January 1975. Newly mastered from original film elements preserved in the BFI National Archive, this powerful film is being made available for a contemporary audience in a Dual Format Edition, is also released on 28 May by BFI Flipside.

Told with rare precision, economy and abstaining from any degree of sensationalism, director Ian Merrick and screenwriter Michael Armstrong’s absorbing, insightful and disconcerting film fell foul of a hypocritical media-driven campaign upon its original cinema release in 1977, which resulted in an effective ban. The reason for the hysterical tabloid reaction to the movie can easily be gauged by the way the film calmly illustrates their culpability in the tragedy.

Lead actor Donald Sumpter, fearlessly playing Donald Neilson (recently seen in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake), is totally convincing as the deluded, heartless, psychopathic murderer. Sumpter’s is a selfless performance, which highlights the contradictions of Neilson’s fractured personality and his twisted motivations. Marjorie Yates who plays Neilson’s wife (perhaps best known for her role as Carol Fisher in the Channel 4 TV drama Shameless) delineates her fear of brutalisation and affection for her monstrous husband, while Debbie Farrington (who plays the kidnap victim) effectively channels Lesley Whittle’s bravery.

Caught by chance after a random encounter with the police, Neilson was convicted in 1976. With five life sentences he was destined to spend the rest of his life in prison and died there in December 2011.
Though this picture only briefly touches upon other sensitive aspects of this highly regrettable incident, such as the general incompetence of the police force, their almost certain leaking of the story to the press with tragic results (which obviously still has great resonance today) and the dismal role played by the media during the whole affair, this gritty film captures not only the futility of Neilson’s crimes but also the dour atmosphere of despair that prevailed in mid 70s Britain. The racist, conceited former soldier Neilson, who had played his part in Britain’s brutal suppression of the Mau-Mau ”√č¬úrebellion’ in Kenya during the 50s, becoming anaesthetized to brutality and violence during the conflict, can be seen as being emblematic of the post-imperial decline and grand delusions of the UK itself during this period.

Both Ian Merrick and Michael Armstrong have written new contributions for the comprehensive booklet that accompanies the discs, which outline the troubled history of the film and the obvious reasons why the production could not examine further the role of the police or media in this dark saga.

This Dual Format Edition also includes Bob Bentley’s BAFTA Award-winning 1981 short film, Recluse, which is based on reports of another real life crime, the death by shotgun of three siblings at a remote farm in Dorset. Director Bob Bentley has also contributed a new essay about the making of Recluse.

If you want to see what Britain was really like in the 1970s, look no further than The Black Panther.

The Black Panther is released by BFI Flipside on 28th May 2012

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