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  • Although I have tagged this as 'liked', I don't think that's quite the word. Impressive, believable and very grim this is a virtual reenactment of real events that I remember well and took place only a couple of years before the film was made. A little bit of stylish photography, a bit of humour, just something to relieve the dull horror and it would have been possible to enjoy the film more.

    What we have, though, is a unique cinematic impression of a real series of violent attacks and kidnap. The original newspaper reporting at the time presented a most unpleasant picture and here it is honestly and accurately represented on film. Everybody does well but the male lead is exceptional and the poor young girl victim almost too believable. You won't like it but as an example of gritty 70s UK cinema it is a great example.
  • 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 a 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wasn't having it, and storm two broke and councils began to ban the film in their cities, eventually the picture was withdrawn and apart from a limited, but successful, VHS release in the early 80s, the film was out of circulation and buried.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 fantasised 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 Leslie, 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
  • Warning: Spoilers
    This is a drama based on the real life activities of Donald Nielson played by Donald Sumpter. He was an ex soldier who had joined civvy street and his business had failed. So he started robbing Post Offices using a sawn off shotgun. He used his army survival training to hide out in woods and generally be a bit of a loon.

    His home life is depicted as him being a misogynistic martinet and all round nasty bloke – he was never going to win 'father of the year'. Then he accidentally shoots a sub Post Master on one of his 'jobs' and his crimes take on a more serious hue. This leads him to commit one of the most notorious crimes of the seventies. That was the kidnapping of Leslie Whittle a 16 year old heiress.

    Now this is quite well made, there is violence and some nudity (which seemed pointless) but it tries to stick to the facts for the most part. There are some great pieces of observational cinema from the time and I loved seeing how the World worked back when I was a lad. It is far from a 'feel good' film and those that remember the time will probably recall certain aspects of the case differently. But for me this was a well made and acted time piece of a film about one despicable man and his crimes.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    The victim of a hysterical proto-sadist video press campaign which killed its initial theatrical run, The Black Panther is actually anything but the insensitive exploitation piece is was labelled as which damned it so long to distribution limbo.

    Charting the bizarre killing spree of wannabe criminal mastermind Donald Neilson, this insightful, intelligent thriller feels chillingly authentic in the way it is constructed. No avant- garde pretensions or sensationalist hyper reality to be found here unlike its accused grindhouse brethren. Director Ian Merrick is to the point with his direction and only benefits the film with his "lack of adventure" should i say, but major credit goes to Michael Armstrong who's minute detail script does what the journalists at the time couldn't be bothered with and lays out fully the whole grim affair to the best the evidence available could suggest. Donald Sumpter is fearless as Panther. A little theatrical for some maybe, but you have to consider that this was no ordinary serial killer. A house thief that turned to armed robbery, then kidnap for ransom, this was no clueless man-child or crusading zealot, he really thought himself as a criminal genius and so would be full of himself, yes? Sumpter understood this and his portrayal of Neilson as the tragic fool gives great clarity to the events on top of the well researched script.

    Overall a horrific, challenging and truthful dramatisation that is a masterclass in true life crime filmmaking, a hidden gem.
  • Donald Sumpter is flawless in his portrayal of Donald Neilson, a pretty weird guy. I saw this on tape when I was about five or six, and fifteen years later I still remember certain scenes very vividly. By all accounts one of the most factual true crime pictures ever made.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    This docu-drama focuses on a crime case I was only ever vaguely familiar with. The psychopathic criminal The Black Panther was a petty thief called Donald Neilson who moved up to robbing post offices in the middle of the night between the years 1972-75. These crimes became increasingly violent resulting in the murders of several postmasters. He followed this with his most notorious crime, the kidnapping of Lesley Whittle, an adolescent girl from a rich family. He abducted her from her bedroom in the middle of the night and hid her deep underground in a drainage shaft. The girl died here, hung by a wire noose that he had left her tethered to.

    This film was very controversial when released. It was singled out by the media as a film which was exploiting a recent notorious criminal case. As a result, after a brief release it was more or less buried, until recently when it was re-released on DVD. Perhaps the film was released too close to the horrible crimes it depicted but even so, this is a carefully handled film which remains downbeat throughout and doesn't veer into exploitation territory. In any case, there is a certain irony in the media getting on their high horse about this film, given that it was the print media's irresponsible actions which more than likely contributed to Lesley Whittle's eventual murder by emblazoning her kidnapping story across their front pages and in doing so seriously jeopardising the ransom situation. What can be said with certainty though is that this is a very strong bit of British cinema. It is underpinned by a chilling central performance from Donald Sumpter as Neilson. He completely convinces as this cold killer. Aside from some poetic license being taken for certain unverifiable moments, the film-makers were at pains to keep the details of the screen-play as close to the record as they possibly could. This has resulted in a downbeat and realistic portrayal of events. Nevertheless, it is highly suspenseful and compelling, if somewhat depressing, stuff. It truly is one of the best true crime films out there and is very much recommended.
  • santaman7 January 2001
    Living in the surrounding area of where the crimes took place I was pleased to find that the film followed the truth of what actually happened very closely.I enjoyed the film immensely,I thought it was well acted and well shot.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    A very close account of Army fanatic Donald Nielson. A man who wants the best for his family but tries robbing post offices and ends up killing due to poor planning. He then sets his sights higher and kidnapps a local wealthy man's daughter and then asks for a ransom which due to one reason or another he never receives. The daughter is found 3 months later in a sewage pipe hanged. I am not spoiling the plot, this is a very well known and brutal crime and the film documents this very well right up to his capture! This film is extremely hard to find and i had to send away to the states to get it.(it was made in the UK!)
  • Warning: Spoilers
    I wasn't expecting too much from this, to be honest. the reviews I'd read in the past hadn't done the movie many favours and the lurid cover art on the video tape really makes you fear for the worst- but, in all reality, its not that bad. I'm guessing that as it was made only a couple of years after the actual crimes depicted that it could have run into trouble, what with the brutal nature of Nielsons crimes and the fact that it had been such a very public series of events that horrified Britain over its weetabix and toast as it flicked past page three and looked for what was on the telly that night in the national tabloids. The movie, for those too young and in foreign parts to remember or to even know, tells the story of ex-army loner Donald Nielson who, to subsidise his income has taken to robbing local post-offices. In a series of military style raids, Nielsons crimes escalate to the point where he ruthlessly murders 3 postmasters whilst all the time planning the kidnapping of a 17 year old whose late father had left her a large inheritance. The film is creepy and effective, Donald Sumpters bizarre performance as the titular Panther makes you want to double-check the door before you go to bed and pull the curtains all the way across the windows.. Of course, despite Nielsons detailed planning, things go terribly wrong. The films careful direction and adhesion to the known facts of the real events add an air of credibility seldom seen outside of the small screen, and its use of locations close to the real ones make it all the more unsettling. Whether or not the drain where the on-screen Whittle meets her horrible demise is a set or a location in Bathpool park, it still makes you uneasy and once again begs the question- is this just trashy exploitation or something much harder to face, perhaps a desire to present the ever awful truth?
  • Warning: Spoilers
    "The Black Panther" is the sad story of a man who should have stayed in the Army, as he needs to live in a military environment (see the 360° panoramic sequence in his private room full of weapons and military accessories - his wife and daughter do not seem to know what's happening inside, the movie doesn't say clearly). That killer needed to be in the infantry charging on the enemy, but definitely not being a burglar awakening everybody doing so much noise, getting mad and killing without reason. He fails everything he does, he wants to steal but succeeds only to kill. Fantastic performance by Donald Sumpter as the killer. And bright direction by Ian Merrick who directed only one other movie which seems forgettable.
  • I remember one summer when my family was on holiday at my aunt's house in Stoke on Trent my father took us to what appeared to be a disused reservoir within a park. He explained that under the grate he showed us a young woman was once held for ransom. Her name was Lesley Whittle and Donald Neilson, her abductor had left her tied up in this underground hell completely naked except for a hood over her head and a noose made of wire around her neck which would kill her if she tried to escape. She wasn't found in time and so died after Neilson didn't get the ransom he demanded. Yes, this was just an average day out for my family.

    The criminal who carried out this was nicknamed in the press 'The Black Panther'. After carrying out a series of armed robberies at post offices, he set about the abduction of Whittle so that he could demand a hefty ransom and reap more lucrative rewards.

    A couple of years after this kidnapping happened a film was made of these events. It was felt in the media that this was too soon and certain censorious channels sought to prevent the film being shown at cinemas throughout the UK. How this was achieved was by pressure being placed on local authorities who in those days had a lot of power regarding films being shown. The BBFC could make a decision on a film and whether it should be left uncut, censored and banned outright but then the film was at the mercy of local authorities and councils as to whether the film would be aired in their respective boroughs.

    This is what happened with The Black Panther and why it was as good as suppressed in the UK. The TV show Tonight were part of this campaign to prevent the film playing with the show's host Sue Lawley dubbing it a 'sick film' even though she hadn't seen it.

    The film resurfaced in the 80's on VHS but aside from that remained buried as it were (pun not intended). That's until the BFI restored the film a few years ago and issued it on Blu ray.

    So is this film really some kind of hidden gem worthy of rediscovery? In a word- YES! It's a bleak account of a psychopathic man embarking a life using his lack of conscience to try to get rich quick after leaving the forces. In fact his time in the army is looked back on by Neilson through rose tinted spectacles as he reminisces about it but also brings that past into his present as he struts around in his attic in his old uniform reliving his glory days. He even lives in the wild as if on an army retreat for days at a time whilst he plans his crimes- firstly, the robbery of the post office substations and then the kidnapping of Whittle. We see him use his training at home also again in his attic/office to plan these projects with military precision.

    The Black Panther is just like it's main character in that it's completely cold, emotionless and detached. This may sound like some kind of criticism but it works brilliantly well. This is the film equivalent of the objective and fact based kind of crime reportage used with no editorialising whatsoever. Even the screen captions to denote dates and places is done so by utilising the font of a typewriter to denote the fact-based reporting of facts. In fact the film brings to mind the reconstructions that were part of the true crime TV show Crimewatch UK, especially the ones featured in the earlier series that were shot on film.

    It's also interesting to see an emotionless character like Neilson operating in the real world and with other people who possess the empathy chip even though he doesn't. The scenes of him at home with his wife and family are darkly entertaining and sometimes downright shocking. He expects his wife to be little more than a hausfrau who serves him and him alone. He barks his disapproval at every turn and over the most mundane things that can't be controlled (we see throughout the film that Neilson wants control over everything in his life but life doesn't work like that. Each of his robberies are besieged and altered from running smoothly by factors that are beyond his control). One example is when he doesn't even look at his wife but raises his tea mug to let her now that he wants it to be filled again. After she dutifully does this he then takes a sip and screams that the tea is 'too hot!'

    There also another very perceptive insight into his home life as we see his teenaged daughter ask if she can go out to see friends. He says no and explains that she will spend money whilst she's out and that it's better to save instead for a rainy day. His daughter then whispers to her mother that her father has said no and they both look dejected. This doesn't last long through. Neilson announces that he will be away for two weeks on another job (he says he's going away to work on projects like house renovations when he is in fact embarking on his army style manoeuvres). We see a sly smile spread across his daughter's face at the news as she exchanges very knowing glances with her mother as if to say 'Hooray! He's out of our hair for a while!'

    The film also acts as a snapshot of what life was really like in 1977. The red phone boxes the killer uses, the thoroughly ugly headboards and brown pyjama sets worn by the sub postmasters when they are rudely awoken in the middle of the night by Neilson robbing their business. The film also shows how terrifying it must have been to be woken up by a man in a blood hood brandishing a sown off shotgun in your face.

    The BFI have done a great job with the Blu ray for the film as it looks and sounds amazing. There are also exhaustive liner notes from director Ian Merrick as to the curious history of the film, it's unwarranted suppression and it's re-emergence on Blu ray. There are also a wealth of extras such as short films and raw footage shot when locations were being sought for the film.

    The Black Panther can now be seen for what it always was- an outstanding true crime film that was ahead of it's time.
  • Dansmith1414 October 2013
    We were all sick to our stomachs when this thing came out in 1977.

    The Leslie Whittle case had rolled across the news for months and months and most kids were afraid to go out at night.

    Kaye Alexander looked sick to her stomach every time she read the news.

    For some opportunistic cast, producer and director to capitalise on the crime and Whittle family misery to make a few quid was absolutely disgusting.

    It was centre stage in our local video shop for months and I don't think anyone hired it about from the local weirdos and paedos.

    Cheapskate media is always willing to have a laugh at our expense.

    Video nasty? Made all the porn films look tame. Hang your heads in shame.