(Ian Merrick, 1977)
So controversial upon its UK release it was swiftly buried and was rarely seen for three decades, Merrick's low-budget true crime study of the criminal career of Donald Neilsen, aka The Black Panther, is a gripping, taut and sensitive film unlike anything else I've ever seen.
Largely forgotten now, ex-soldier Neilsen (Donald Sumpter, superb) was a burglar and armed robber who eventually graduated to murder and kidnapping, becoming the most-wanted man in England for a few years in the mid-70s, when his crimes terrorised the North and Midlands and the press fastened upon his sawn-off shotgun and black hood. Merrick and screenwriter Michael Armstrong begin with Neilsen already well into his career. He plans his crimes in fastidious detail, approaching each like a military operation, camping in the countryside outside a small town, breaking into a post office at night and taking everything in the till. Despite his preparation, he's not much of a criminal, and one of the strengths of The Black Panther is how consistently it underlines the gulf between how Neilsen sees himself and what he really is.
When his victims begin to resist, Neilsen reacts with violence, and his murders are committed in pursuit of paltry sums. His home life is odd - he bullies his wife and daughter, suffers from ulcer pains and mood swings, cataloguing the coverage of his exploits in scrapbooks and reflecting upon photos from his past.
The climax comes with Neilsen's meticulously planned kidnapping of a 17 year old heiress, which goes horribly wrong when the police leak it to the press and the ransom delivery is bungled. All of this is shot with a tremendously effective neutrality of tone - we simply observe Neilsen go about his days; planning, working out, casing locations, travelling, watching television. Merrick and Armstrong never seem to judge him, though it is evident he is a psychopath. Sumpter plays him like an inadequate fantasist, liable to fly into a rage whenever he is frustrated or stymied, demanding military discipline at home. All of this takes place against the backdrop of an unbelievably grim period in British history - the oil crisis, the first mainland bombing campaign by the IRA and the three day week all coincided. Merrick accordingly evokes a crumbling, rotten country, its institutions letting it down - the police and press here are shown to be in collusion and generally incompetent; casual violence in the streets suggests a breakdown of social order which the actions of Neilsen reflect.
The cool evenness of tone does build suspense; there are no generic markers here, no melodramatic tropes tipping us off about what might happen next. All we have is Neilsen and what he did. From that raw material, Merrick made a film which is unique, fascinating and darkly engrossing. That it is not better-known and appreciated is a shame, and one which the BFI's recent DVD release will hopefully rectify.