BOOKS AND ARTS AUGUST 24, 2012
It is called The Black Panther, and for the moment at least it cannot be seen in America. I daresay it deserves another title, now, one that avoids suggestions of horror or intimations of radical black politics. There is horror in this movie, though our standards for that genre have changed so much since 1977, when the film very briefly opened in Britain. I’m writing about it in an effort to help bring it to screens in America, and because it’s a strange, disturbing study of a killer that was rejected in absurd disgust.
The murderers of other cultures and past ages are commonly as boring as your brother-in-law’s holiday photographs. But there was an abject, lower-class demon loose in Britain in the mid 1970s, dubbed “the Black Panther” by the media, but once known as Donald Nappey, and then Donald Neilson. In Britain, a “nappy” is a diaper, and when Nappey’s daughter got the teasing at school that the father had suffered, he changed the family name to Neilson, which sounded safe.
Neilson, born in 1936, had been a soldier in Kenya, during the Mau-Mau troubles. That left him a racist, trained in military violence, and troubled. He married, quit the Army, had a daughter, and tried to support them on a variety of sketchy jobs. He was an intimidating solitary and a disciplinarian who ran his household like a military unit. He seemed to need to keep the people closest to him afraid of his dark moods. Short of money and without a fixed job, he took to a career of small robberies, all of which he planned like military raids. His media name came from the black hoods he made for himself with cut-out eye-holes. He tried to talk like a Mau-Mau terrorist. He broke into provincial post offices at night for the cash on hand, and soon enough he was killing the postmaster and his wife if they woke up. He had a great array of weapons and he was devoted to maps, diagrams, plans and iron rations.
But he needed a big job, so he kidnapped a teenage heiress and held her for ransom. He kept the girl tethered, in a sleeping bag, deep in a drainage tunnel. As attempts to deliver the ransom money were all confounded, Neilson became unbearably frustrated. Eventually the girl died, either because in his desperation Neilson strangled her or because she slipped from her insecure resting place and expired from the wire noose Neilson kept on her neck. We don’t know exactly what happened, but Neilson was sent to prison without any chance of parole. He would die there in 2011 of motor neurone disease.
A young man, Ian Merrick, decided that this episode would make a subject for his first film. He had been in America for a while and he was convinced that good, low-budget films could be made in Britain on an American model. At first, he was thinking of a story about a man who kidnaps a young woman, not too far from the John Fowles novel, The Collector, which had been filmed by William Wyler, with Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, in 1965. But the only money people Merrick could find told him, do the Black Panther story, which had been solved in 1975. Merrick got Michael Armstrong to write a script and he found a somber young actor, Donald Sumpter, to play Neilson. The film was made, and it opened in London and a few other cities in 1977. But a campaign attacked what some saw as exploitation. The film was trashed on a popular television show, withdrawn and buried. In the movie world serial killer projects come along as regularly as the latest pretty girls.
I don’t mean to tell you the film is a masterpiece, or less than upsetting. Some of it smacks of a first-time director: The lighting can be unnatural, and sometimes the acting is awkward; the concentration on process seems numbing. But those very defects give the film a special mood, lucid in its nastiness, but not too far from black surrealism. Neilson is a monster, but a pathetic, inept man endlessly thwarted in his obsessive plans. The police are incompetent; the media are reckless; and the Neilson family life is a cheerless portrait of authority and alienation. Neilson is a shabby fascist, without confidence or conscience. He may be mad, but he is commonplace in a class culture where aberration can often pass as eccentricity. Sumpter is unforgettable in the part, and he is on screen most of the time. You know him as an actor, even if he has lost most of his hair now—he had good supporting parts in The Constant Gardener and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and he works steadily, along with several hundred actors who have done great work in the past and then lived in a world where no one has heard of it.
The film offers no sympathy for Neilson, and allows him not a touch of glamour. The contrast with The Silence of the Lambs is very striking, for somehow the figure of Hannibal Lecter emerged with a loathsome authority and allure that won an Oscar for Anthony Hopkins. But there’s another comparison worth making. There are moments in The Black Panther where Neilson irresistibly reminds us of Travis Bickle. Why not, for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver opened in 1976, just before this film was made.
Merrick has remained in the film business, doing whatever he could, but he felt himself a branded figure and he has only had one other feature film to direct—The Sculptress (2000), made in San Francisco but barely released. I haven’t seen it, but on IMDb one is warned not to make the effort. In 1977, people who had never seen The Black Panther condemned it for its unwholesomeness—a similar thing had happened 15 or so years earlier with Michael Powell when he made Peeping Tom. The Black Panther is not in that class artistically, though it has an austere scrutiny for Neilson’s dire task that might play provocatively with some of Robert Bresson’s films—A Man Escaped, perhaps.
In Britain, the picture has been rediscovered and released as a Blu-Ray by the British Film Institute. The film deserves America, and we deserve to see it.