MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: THE SCREENPLAYS.
THE BLACK PANTHER. (1976)
PUBLISHED IN 2017 BY PAPER DRAGON PRODUCTIONS.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘Michael Armstrong is creating history by being the first film-maker to publish his entire screenwriting output. With the original uncut screenplays in print for the first time ever and peppered with a mixture of wildly entertaining anecdotes, astounding behind-the-scenes revelations, creative and educational insights and brutal ‘no holds barred’ honesty, these books are guaranteed to provide a completely new kind of reading experience while offering a unique insight into the movie industry. Starting from his first professional screenplay written in 1960 when he was only fifteen and which he subsequently directed in 1968, the books will ultimately encompass a career that has spanned over fifty years. The books will include not only those screenplays which made it onto a cinema screen but, for the first time ever, all those that didn’t- and the reasons why…’
THE BLACK PANTHER. (1977)
DIRECTED AND PRODUCED BY IAN MERRICK.
WRITTEN BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG.
STARRING DONALD SUMPTER, DEBBIE FARRINGTON, MARJORIE YATES AND SYLVIA O’DONNELL.
FILM REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS.
Wow. This film is surely a forgotten or overlooked gem. It’s the deeply gripping and compelling story of ex-military man Donald Neilson’s bizarre and excessively violent crime spree, that took place between the years of 1972 and 1975 in England.
It was characterised by a lot of idiotic bungling, not to mention impulsive actions and poor judgement on the part of Neilson. The police were baffled for a while by the messy and seemingly poorly-planned crimes committed by the man the press dubbed ‘the Black Panther’ because he always wore a black hood and was quick and light on his feet, this last being pretty much his only redeeming feature as a criminal. Other than that, one would be obliged to say, I fear, that he greatly sucked at committing crimes, lol.
He starts off in the film robbing a load of country post offices with his shotgun while wearing his ‘Black Panther’ disguise. He usually ends up botching the job, however, like the time he accidentally sprays an ammonia solution intended for his victim into his own eyes.
How bizarre it must have been for the poor post-master in his pyjamas, to open his door and then find the would-be robber falling all over the place, screaming and pawing frantically at his temporarily blinded eyes! I call that poetic justice.
Neilson invariably wakes up the people he’s trying to rob and then, of course, the whole operation goes tits-up and he ends up running for his life, having shot someone fatally and escaped with only a few bags of coins for his trouble.
Even the way he’s trained himself to run with rocks in his backpack and stones in his clothing so that he can carry away coins from a burglary just shows us what a pitifully small-time crook he is. He’s even then only thinking in terms of pennies and tuppences.
He gives his wife and daughter a miserable life, with his monosyllabic bullying, shouting and domineering. ‘Dirty! Clean it better! Clean it again!’ He treats them both like raw recruits under the rule of a prickly sergeant-major.
He disappears for weeks on end, telling his wife he’s ‘looking for work,’ so why does he never have any money? Because his money-making schemes and plans never come to anything, that’s why. Why doesn’t he just work a normal job for his money? He mightn’t be rich, but at least he wouldn’t be in constant danger of being picked up by the cops for burglary and murder.
It’s clear that the happiest days of Neilson’s life were spent in the army. He spends hours dressing up in his old kit, poring over old photos of him and his army buddies doing army things.
He should never have left the army, as he’s only comfortable there; he’s probably perfectly happy with the rules, regulations, strict timetable and structure, regular meals and bed-times and showers and changes of linen, etc. He clearly loved the company of other men, the camaraderie of living and working side-by-side with them.
He’s never been happy or comfortable in or with civilian life. He probably got married and had a child because it was expected of him. Now three people are miserable because of it, and Neilson treats his family like underlings in his own private army. No wonder they can’t wait to see the back of him when he goes off on his ‘jaunts.’
It was said of mass murderer Ed Gein that he enjoyed prison immensely- the regularity of things, the company of living people- because it was far preferable to the way he was living outside on his own.
I imagine that Neilson would have loved prison nearly as much as he’d loved the army. It’s much the same deal. Three hots and a cot, things happen at the same time every day, you keep your mouth shut and follow orders and you’re surrounded by other men like you who aren’t going anywhere either for a while.
Neilson is also a highly dangerous man, however, probably a sociopath, one who throws tantrums like a child when he doesn’t get his own way and who blames others for his own failings. We see this with our own eyes in the film. For the safety of the public, he needs to be kept away from society forever.
He decides to up his game for what I presume he doesn’t know is to be his last ever ‘job,’ the abduction for ransom of sixteen-year-old Lesley Whittle, the heiress to a motor coach transport company. Neilson plans the kidnapping down to the nth degree, but he complicates things as usual and, as usual, it comes off disastrously for all parties concerned.
He spends countless hours in preparation, making lists in his notebook, checking his plans, his outfit, his travel routes and his ammunition, guns and equipment before he goes out on the ‘job,’ but it still all goes haywire. Why?
Well, I’m sorry to say that he just looks and sounds like one of life’s failures, a nobody who thinks small and is going nowhere. Why doesn’t he do a regular job and make money that way, as I said earlier? He’s handy enough. I wonder why it never occurs to him to pursue a life outside of crime?
It’s a very hard film to watch, because of all the innocent people in it who are hurt almost randomly by Neilson. Contrary to claims levelled at it at the time of release, however, it most definitely is not a sensationalistic piece of exploitation film-making designed to titillate and arouse the viewer.
Certainly not. It treats the painful subject matter delicately and responsibly, and the lasting impression of the film is one of deep sorrow for the victims of Donald Neilson, a petty little man who obviously thought he was bigger and vastly more important than he was.
The script-book, from which the film is of course made, is beautifully and tightly written. There’s not a single extraneous word in there, not one word there that does not sing most eloquently for its supper. The film, therefore, is not bogged down by endless monologues and verbiage. It moves along at a cracking pace.
And, yes, it shocks us, but not gratuitously. There are no scantily-clad busty blondes in it, shrieking at the presence of the hooded man pressing a gun into an expanse of soft white breast before he throws the woman down on the bed and brutally rapes her. Sorry if that’s what you were expecting…!
Those of you who know me and my writing will know that I’ve been reviewing Michael’s screenplay books for the last few years. The book of THE BLACK PANTHER (1976) makes for absolutely compelling reading. It, or any of Michael’s glossy and luxurious film script books, would make the perfect Christmas present for the film fan in your life. Or you could buy it for yourself, and to hell with them…!
You can buy this book and all of Michael’s other books as well at the following links: