25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on 5 June 2012
The Black Panther was Donald Neilson, who became infamous for his execution of a series of crimes throughout the Midlands in the mid-70s. Though he was finally apprehended by the police in December 1975, this film was released in 1977, just 18 months after his arrest and just a few months after his trial, so the crimes were still very fresh in the publics' conscious. And that was both the making, and the downfall of the film.
Neilson is played by Donald Sumpter (more familiar to contemporary audiences for his role as Maester Luwin in Game of Thrones), who carries the film for the first 70 minutes, until the police finally make their overdue appearance. The centerpiece of the film, after Neilson carries out a few bungled robberies, one of which ends up with him killing those he was attempting to steal from, is when he plots to take a wealthy heiress hostage for a ransom. The film goes into none of the sensationalist areas that many similar true-life crime films have done, and for 'The Black Panther', this actually works very well. In real life, the police and press made a number of catastrophic errors, which are toned down somewhat here, though producer Ian Merrick didn't exactly shy away from such details. It does make a refreshing change to watch a film relay a story exactly as it happened (though even today some details are contentious), though it obviously wouldn't work for every crime film, it does work for this one. Unsurprisingly, as the film was released so soon after the actually crime, there was a press-led revolt against releasing it in cinemas. Though it was eventually put on limited release in a few major cities, and there was a VHS release many, many years ago, this is the first serious release of 'The Black Panther' since 1977, and is certainly one of the more deserving entries into the BFI's Flipside collection.
The Blu-ray (and DVD which mirrors the content of the Blu-ray) has a transfer taken directly from the original 35mm film elements, so though the film has a murky feel to it, this is intended by the filmmaker, and is generally a very pleasing transfer, with very few signs of damage, and a generally crisp image throughout. There's a mono English soundtrack, and also an alternative French language soundtrack with English subtitles. As for extras, the main piece here is the 1979 28-minute film by Bob Bentley, 'Recluse'. This is a more fictionalised account of a murderer than 'The Black Panther', and is set on a rural farm rather than the main film's urban sprawl. Still, it's an excellent companion piece, and well worth a look. There's also an 8-minute piece of location footage shot by the director of 'Recluse' when he was scouting locations for the film. Finally, there's an excellent 34-page booklet inside with lots of detail about both films, and details well the context surrounding 'The Black Panther's' release.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
The Black Panther is directed by Ian Merrick and written by Michael Armstrong. It stars Donald Sumpter, Debbie Farrington, Marjorie Yates, Sylvia O'Donnell, Andrew Burt, Alison Key, Ruth Dunning and David Swift. Music is by David Hewson and cinematography by Joe Mangine.
Between 1971 and 1975 an armed robber turned murderer known as The Black Panther was hunted by police as the public in the North and Midlands areas of England waited anxiously. When 17 year old Leslie Whittle became an heiress to a fortune, she was kidnapped and held to ransom by The Black Panther. It was to end in tragedy. This is the story of Donald Neilson, ex-soldier of Her Majesty's Forces, also known as The Black Panther.
The Neilson trial ended in 1976. This movie went in to production shortly afterwards, which for many would surely be too soon? Sure enough when the press and media got wind of it a storm broke, a savage campaign ensued, headlines such as "sick exploitation" were used, BBC's Sue Lawley chastised it as sick rubbish even though she hadn't seen the film, in fact at this point nobody had seen the film! It was all guess work. The film was pulled from imminent distribution in the hope that the furore would die down. A few months later it had a limited release and went down well with critics who appraised it as not being exploitive but intelligent, tactful and meticulous in its reconstructions. But the press wasn't having it, and storm two broke and councils began to ban the film in their cities, eventually the picture was withdrawn and apart from a limited, but successful, VHS release in the early 80s, the film was out of circulation and buried. That is until now, where the BFI have put together a release of The Black Panther to DVD and Blu-ray that finally lets Merrick and Armstrong's brilliant movie get the exposure it deserves.
There is no getting away from it, the subject matter is troubling and will always be skirting the boundaries of bad taste. Often bigger budgeted films than this have shamefully milked real life horror in search of the big dollar. The Black Panther is not one such case, it's a sharp picture that asks some searching questions whilst not being afraid to implicate police inadequacies and press interference into the Whittle killing. There is no sensationalising of Neilson here, in fact he is portrayed as a bumbling fool once he begins to enact his crimes. His planning is meticulous, his army training giving him mental fortitude, but as we see, and remember this is all taken from real accounts and testimonies et al, he was a hapless fool in over his head. His home life shows him as a bully who can't let his regimental bent go, his poor wife and daughter meekly giving in to his tyrannical ways, but they had no idea they were living with The Black Panther. I mean would you know if you lived with a monster who fantasized about being a master criminal? Someone capable of murder? Would you?
With the lawyers of the day having gone through the screenplay with a fine tooth comb, you can rest assured that what you see is facts. The only points of the movie left to supposition are those played out with just Neilson and young Lesley, we only have Neilson's word on these events but again nothing is glorified and Merrick uses admirable restraint to really drive the sadness home. The film also plays out to a grim mid 70s British backdrop, the futility of Neilson's crimes dovetailing with the glumness bathing a United Kingdom of strikes, unemployment, racism and Northern Irish troubles. As a snap shot of the times it also has high interest value. Dialogue is sparse, often forcing us the viewers to be uneasily in the company of Neilson, watching him work and plot, smiling to his reflection in the mirror, to observe rare moments when he lets his emotional guard down. The makers ask us to ask the pertinent questions, just what made Donald Neilson what he was? Who was he? And should culpability be shared?
Backed by an astonishing and riveting performance by Sumpter, The Black Panther rounds out as an utterly gripping account of a terrible crime spree and the man who perpetrated those crimes. Too long this film has been forgotten, that in itself is as big a crime as that committed by the hypocritical press who fought to keep it from our eyes back in the dead part of the 70s. 10/10
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 5 June 2012
As a young whipper snapper I had never really heard of this case (even though I grew up in Dudley!) I enjoyed the film and I felt the facts were presented well in a 'crimewatch' way rather than a dramatised 'CSI' kind of way which held my interest throughout. I spent some time after the film had finished looking at Wiki and it really is a fascinating case. Worth a watch.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 10 June 2012
Top marks for the brilliant main feature and excellent booklet to accompany it, but what this release really needed to accompany the film was a quality documentary or two. Flipside are capable of this, just check out the wonderful package for Deep End! With The Black Panther we only get an unconnected short film entitled "Recluse" which despite winning awards didn't really do it for me. As for the main feature, it is an amazing lost gem, a real treat to discover this, and I hope the BFI keep unearthing such delights.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2012
I just want to endorse what others have written about the quality of the film and the quality of the image and sound on the discs. They're excellent and all kudos should go to the BFI for rescuing this film from totally undeserved obscurity.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Originally intended as a fictional psychological thriller before its distributors insisted the script be reworked around a notorious real case, The Black Panther was probably the most demonised British film of the 70s. Banned in many parts of the country and then pulled completely from UK screens shortly after release in 1977 and only given a brief video release, it disappeared for three-and-a-half decades after a self-righteous media frenzy about it tastelessly exploiting the then notorious kidnapping and death of heiress Lesley Whittle and murder of three postmasters at the hands of Donald Neilson that most of those same papers and news outlets had ruthlessly exploited and possibly exacerbated to boost their circulation and ratings. The timing (it opened the day after Christmas) and attempts to get Whittle’s family’s approval were certainly ill-judged, but the only moment in the film that feels genuinely exploitative is a brief bit of nudity, an unnecessary touch in a film that otherwise scrupulously avoids the lurid. Indeed, far from being a crude exploitation film, it remains at a dispassionate remove, allowing the events to speak for themselves in a low key almost drama documentary recounting of the known facts at the time (the screenplay was completely rewritten by Michael Armstrong and every detail meticulously checked by lawyers) that avoids editorialising, explaining or special pleading to simply observe the bungled crimewave. It’s a lean script with little dialogue, no big character scenes or attempt to get inside Neilson’s head, instead following the ex-soldier as he trains, meticulously plans and hopelessly bungles post office robberies inbetween running his family like a bullying sergeant major giving hopeless recruits an ear-lashing over imagined infractions of discipline before moving on to bungle a bigger crime.
With director Ian Merrick adopting guerrilla filmmaking techniques with a small crew and no stars (though Ian Holm was originally lined up to play Neilson until Whittle’s family expressed their misgivings about the project), the influence of filmmakers like Peter Watkins and Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place is apparent at times, but if anything it’s even more rigorously naturalistic. It’s a coldly unemotional film that’s quietly compelling precisely because it never seems to be trying to attract your attention but makes you feel that you’re eavesdropping on someone you really don’t want to get close to but can’t look away from. And in Donald Sumpter’s chillingly underplayed Neilson it has a very ordinary and very believable monster who is able to cry at sad endings to schlocky movies and give a small smile of satisfaction at a job well done as he pastes the cutting of his latest botched robbery into his scrapbook – an inadequate man cutting himself off from the people around him while convincing himself that he’s still the good soldier even as everything he touches goes wrong. It’s a performance not of big moments but of small details, like the way he alternates between the fake foreign accent he adopts as a pathetic disguise and his natural voice when dealing with his hostage, or the mounting frustration he tries to keep in as his plans inevitably unravel.
There’s certainly a state of the nation undercurrent to the film, set against then-bankrupt country in what seemed like irreversible decay where casual street violence and racism are simply accepted without comment (even Neilson’s accidental capture elicits no reaction from the passers-by as they blankly watch while eating their chips), but it’s kept in the background. So, more for budgetary reasons, is the botched police investigation, the various local forces incompetence and inability to connect the robberies and the kidnapping downplayed, the press’s catastrophic intervention in the case limited to a horrifying moment when Whittle’s brother is doorstepped by reporters, tipped of by the police, while waiting for instructions to deliver the ransom.
It’s a downbeat feelbad film if ever there was one – apart from Whittle’s family, no-one comes out of it looking good - but it’s an intelligent one that is undeserving of the public pillorying it received.
The BFI’s Blu-ray/DVD combo offers a fine widescreen transfer of the feature, especially considering the limitations of the source material, though the accompanying short film directed by Bob Bentley, Recluse, fares less well: the Blu-ray transfer is riddled with digital noise in the darker scenes, though the transfer on the accompanying DVD has no such problems. Both discs also include footage of the location recce for the short film, which was shot on the actual farm that the family killing it depicts took place, though the trailer for The Black Panther is only included on the DVD. There’s also an excellent booklet with articles by Ian Merrick and Michael Armstrong about the feature.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 January 2013
Donald Neilson spends time at home meticulously planning jobs, then he spends time away from home doing those jobs. Not the sort his wife thinks though. What begins with post office robberies, with ever increasing violence, soon escalate further to include kidnap and death...
Film account of the true life actions of the violent criminal and murderer Neilson. This film was released far too soon after the incidents in it happened and thus, shall we say, it created a bit of controversy when it came out and for years has been unfairly treated..
Viewing it now one can still see why, as its still very powerful stuff indeed, with some superb acting (i don't think theres one bad turn for such a small production!) and a very lonely, bleak atmosphere. The violence is not exactly gratuitous but is realistic enough to still shock and although on the outset, it probably won't appeal to or be seen by too many people it is without doubt a great piece of story telling and deserves better.
Bfi on the other hand have done their best, with a really good blu ray package. I think the print is excellent considering.
4.5/5 rounded up.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 4 October 2012
I bought this film on video a few years back when I was at Cash Generator for 99p. It's dark powerful thriller about The Black Panther who went on a rampage murdering post master and then killing a teenaged girl in the 1970's. At the time, the film caused controversy in its cinema release due to the film got made two years after the incident.
Black Panther is one the best crime films ever made it was ahead of its time in film style if you ever watching crime shows like Crimewatch or any crime drama made after the 1980's you can see that The Black Panther is the inspiration for them.
It's well written by talented writer Michael Armstrong, the direction by Ian Merrick is flawless and intensed performance by Donald Stumper who plays the Black Panther.
Buy it now.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 29 August 2013
This is a minor classic of British seventies film but sadly, quite a neglected one.It provoked a tabloid furore at the time of its release (of which more later) and did not find the audience it deserved.
The film concerns the crimes of Donald Neilson, who violently robbed post offices before graduating to kidnap. His viciousness was matched by his ineptitude and resulted in the deaths of many of his robbery victims as well as the kidnapped girl, Lesley Whittle. The film also points the finger clearly at newspaper journalists whose leaking of the embargoed ransom details almost certainly contributed to the death of the victim. This probably accounts for their animosity towards the film. It is never exploitative and Donald Sumpter gives a mesmerising performance as a true psychotic, who justifies his actions as providing for a family for whom he is shown to have no empathy. Its also particularly interesting to see that the film uses genuine locations from the panther's activities such as Dudley Zoo and Redditch town centre. This gives the film an almost documentary feel. Thankfully the BFI have rescued this film from obscurity and restored it handsomely for this set. Also included is a short film by the director and a comprehensive booklet . Strongly recommended
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The film tells the story of one of the most harrowing chain of events in the 'U.K' during the seventies.
Ex-army Squaddie 'Donald Neilson' is a trouble man who decides on a career of post office robbery's, which. during an early attempt goes terribly wrong, he kills......
Then he kills again and again.
He decides on a change of direction, kidnapping a 17 year old heiress, keeping her in a drainage tunnel while waiting for the ransom to be paid by the girls brother, however things do not go to plan.
The kidnapping remains one of 'Lesley Whittle' remains one of the most infamous acts of all time.
The role of 'Donald Neilson' is played by 'Donald Sumpter'
The role of 'Lesley Whittle' is played by 'Debbie Farrington'
It is a fact based film, and should be viewed
The Blu-ray transfer is below par......but don't let that put you off.