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  Black Panther, The Robbery With Violence
Year: 1977
Director: Ian Merrick
Stars: Donald Sumpter, Debbie Farrington, Marjorie Yates, Sylvia O'Donnell, Andrew Burt, Alison Key, Ruth Dunning, David Swift, Michael Barrington, Lila Kaye, Delia Paton, Edwin Apps, Gerry Sundquist, Ruth Kettlewell, Graham Ashley, Brenda Cowling, Peter Copley
Genre: BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: This is a true story and what you are about to see adheres as closely as possible to the facts. In the early nineteen-seventies, Donald Neilson (Donald Sumpter) was drifting through a series of jobs but never settling or making progress with any of them. He lived with his wife (Marjorie Yates) and teenage daughter (Sylvia O'Donnell) in the West Midlands, and had been greatly influenced by his time in military service, so much so that he would go off alone on self-styled training exercises. But what was he performing this training for?

To become one of the most notorious killers of the decade, in Britain anyway, as this misfit with a grudge against the world began robbing post offices for measly amounts, then graduated, if that's the right word, to shooting anybody who would get in his way during the execution of his crimes. This was such a notorious affair, especially in light of what happened next in 1975, that there was a great deal of public interest in the man the newspapers had dubbed The Black Panther, not because he was an African American militant, indeed he was a racist according to one scene here, but because he wore a black hood over his head when committing his exploits.

Therefore it was an obvious choice for some filmmakers to create a movie from the material, and so it was with director Ian Merrick who wanted to make this as realistic as possible, and screenwriter Michael Armstrong, whose background prior to this had mainly been in horror films and sexploitation, which might have you worrying about the treatment of a very sensitive subject. Yet actually the end result played down the sensational aspects and kept proceedings exceedingly drab, grim, grey and depressing, with not one moment of levity as if Neilson was affecting the whole country with his behaviour, bringing everything down to his level of loathing while the public tried to assist the police in tracking him down.

This publicity was about the only thing that cheered Neilson in this telling, as he kept press cuttings of his escapades in scrapbooks, but although the film resists delving too deeply into the killer's psychology, employing a "just the facts" approach, it does open up the question of whether Neilson was a petty criminal who allowed his evildoing to run away with him, or was genuinely mentally disturbed. The press call him a psychopath, and the fact that he was willing to resort to murder for such small amounts of cash did point to that as a reasonable assessment, as do the scenes we watch of him planning and training for his next crimes, as if he's still in the Army, though the irony is his attempts at military precision are a joke.

No matter how carefully Neilson prepares, there's pretty much always something that goes wrong, which renders him looking more like a pathetic loser than someone to be respected for his aptitude at carrying out the robberies. As if acknowledging this, his biggest crime was the kidnapping of heiress Lesley Whittle (Debbie Farrington), who he kept underground in an air shaft as his schemes to seize half a million pounds from her family wound up in tragedy, not to mention a lack of success which would be farcical if it was not so serious. This film was very controversial at the time for being seen to be cashing in on a real life case of misery, which ended up with hardly anybody catching it in its day, but looking back now it's more widely available you can appreciate Merrick was respectful for the most part, with only a shade of prurience seeping through its documentary style. Sumpter makes for uncomfortable viewing as a very unpleasant man, though the question lingered as to whether a dramatisation was really necessary. Music by Richard Arnell.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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