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The Black Panther (BFI Flipside) (DVD + Blu-ray) 
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BFI Flipside presents
THE BLACK PANTHER (DVD + Blu-ray)
A Film by Ian Merrick
THE FLIPSIDE: rescuing weird and wonderful British films from obscurity and presenting them in new high-quality editions.
Directed by Ian Merrick, this intelligent crime drama charts the infamous killing spree which Donald Neilson, aka the Black Panther, perpetrated across England during the mid-1970s, culminating in the kidnapping and death of a 17-year-old girl.
Told with uncommon accuracy and refraining from sensationalism, this fascinating and disturbing film fell foul of a media-driven campaign on its original cinema release which resulted in an effective ban.
- Presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
- Original 1980s video release trailer (2 mins, DVD only)
- Alternative French language soundtrack, with English subtitles
- Recluse (Bob Bentley, 1979, 28 mins): arresting short film based on real events, starring Maurice Denham and edited by David Gladwell
- Recluse: recce footage (1978, 8 mins): recently discovered 16mm location scouting footage shot by director Bob Bentley
- illustrated booklet with contributions from Ian Merrick, Michael Armstrong, Bob Bentley and James Oliver; original promotional artwork and full credits
UK | 1977 | colour | English language, with optional English hard-of-hearing subtitles | 98 minutes | Original aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Disc 1: BD50 | 1080p | 24fps | PCM mono audio (48k/24-bit)
Disc 2: DVD9 | PAL | Dolby Digital mono audio (320kbps)
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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
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.
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