THE BLACK PANTHER

20:06:17

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The day after watching The Black Panther I saw episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. It was in four parts separated by commercial breaks. Firstly agent Dale Cooper’s evil doppelganger gets shot, then revived by some ghost-like woodsmen who rub blood into him in an awful dark ritual until he’s alive again. Then in 1945 an atomic bomb in New Mexico unleashes a female goddess figure who vomits out evil over the Earth, including BOB. Thirdly a giant and a woman live in a metal castle in a lonely sea. The giant floats into the air and dreams a golden dream from which a shining globe containing the image of Laura Palmer drifts into the woman’s hands. She kisses it and sends it via a cinema screen and a brass tube into our world. In part 4 it is 1956 and a cross between a frog and an insect crawls over the desert sand and into a sleeping girl’s mouth whilst a woodsman speaks the following incantation over the radio:

THIS IS THE WATER AND THIS IS THE WELL

DRINK FULL AND DESCEND

THE HORSE IS THE WHITE OF THE EYES

AND DARK WITHIN

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The Black Panther is as diametrically opposite to the Lynchian universe of quark, strangeness and charm as it is possible to get. Ian Merrick’s film of Donald Neilson’s exploits, robbing post offices and then kidnapping a teenage heiress, is so true to life and forensically unimaginative that it hurts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another film as unblemished by context and subplot in my life. The story is told without any attempt to explain or rationalise the events. It is an hour and a half of Crimewatch reconstruction.

THE HORSE IS THE WHITE OF THE EYES

AND DARK WITHIN

Born Donald Nappey in 1936, his surname made him the butt of jokes and cruel jibes, so he changed it to Neilson. He did his National Service in Cyprus and Kenya and became interested in guns, but when he married Irene in 1955 she persuaded him not to pursue a career in the forces. Fancying himself as a survivalist, he kept ammunition and maps at home and his love of military order never left him.

Finding it hard to make ends meet, in 1965 he turned to burglary as a lifestyle choice. Houses proved easy to rob without getting caught, but rewards were meagre, so he turned his attention to sub-post offices. Neilson lived a double life, becoming ever more bitter and domineering at home to his wife and daughter, and ever more ruthless in his night time pursuits. The media called him The Black Panther.

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The film shows him getting greedier and greedier as he turns his gun on postmasters who unfortunately get involved in this sad man’s lone wolf crime spree. In the late sixties and early seventies provincial England was an uninspiring brownish grey. Everything smelled of cigarette ash and chip fat and it constantly drizzled a fine, cold rain. This is the texture from which this film is forged.

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THIS IS THE WATER AND THIS IS THE WELL

DRINK FULL AND DESCEND

Treating society as a well from which to draw his sustenance, Neilsen decides to drink full and descend. He abducts young heiress 17 year old Lesley Whittle from her bedroom. Wearing only a dressing gown, she is taken to a place where Neilson will keep her hostage and where she will eventually die.

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THIS         IS         THE         WATER         AND         THIS         IS         THE         WELL

Deep in a drainage shaft in Bathpool Park, Staffordshire, on a platform above dark, icy water, with a cable round her neck and no hope of escape, Neilson holds her for ransom, demanding a money drop from her family with no police presence. As a man who can’t successfully rob a post office without resorting to murder, he isn’t quite the master criminal he thinks he is and the whole episode ends in farcical tragedy and dark sadness.

All this is bathed in a bare, stark reality. No private worlds of imagination are stepped into, no psychology is examined. The food looks unappetising and the interiors are without atmosphere. As a conveyor of the cruelty and isolation of the criminal the film works well. Donald Sumpter is superb as the unlikable Neilson, alienated from civilian society and forever preying on its weaknesses.

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Years later, outside a chip shop in Mansfield The Black Panther was eventually captured by police officers and members of the public.

THIS         IS         THE         WATER         AND         THIS         IS         THE         WELL

DRINK                 FULL                AND                 DESCEND

THE           HORSE          IS            THE          WHITE           OF           THE           EYES

AND                   DARK                   WITHIN

 

He died in prison on December 18th, 2011.

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THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR

13:06:17

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At Film Night we have a protocol in place for televised live football matches, and it is as follows:  Chris Corner watches the first half at his house, and then as soon as the ref blows his whistle for half-time he sets off walking at a brisk pace. This ensures his arrival at Film Night HQ just in time to watch England bugger it all up against France in the second half. One particularly poor assault on goal, an attempt at a bit of technical wizardry by England, which rather than resulting in the ball rocketing  into the French net, instead resulted in the striker (can’t remember which hapless flop it actually was) making no contact with the ball whatsoever and landing on his arse. The entire sorry scenario was summed up by Mr. Corner as ‘Fancy Rubbish‘. The whole of English football in a nutshell.

Obviously the football takes up a bit of time, so we generally try and programme a fairly short film for the main feature. At just an hour and three minutes long The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) seemed a perfect fit. I remember watching this film on a tiny portable black and white tv when I was working at a hospital in Nottingham or Derby and it left an impression, so I was looking forward to seeing it again.

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Directed by Latvian born Boris Ingster, The Stranger on the Third Floor is sometimes considered to be the first film noir. Of course other films had elements of noir within them, but the narrative arc of TSOTTF and the general atmosphere of sweaty desperation in an ominous cityscape places all the required tropes together as a coherent whole. They had of course been producing this kind of dark cinema in France since the 1930s (hence the French expression film noir), but this is certainly one of the first American forays into such deep recesses of shadowy urban angst.

The film was not received well on its initial release. Reviewers called it derivative, pretentious and absurdly overwrought. The two lead actors (John McGuire as Mike and Margaret Tallichet as Jane) go through their scripted paces adequately but their roles luckily require little subtlety. Neither of them went on to forge creditable careers in the industry. Despite only having about five minutes of screen time, Peter Lorre was given top billing as the ‘stranger’. His appearance in this low budget B movie was due to the fact that he owed RKO a couple of day’s work on his contract.

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The story centres around Mike, a young reporter whose evidence is about to send a kid (Elisha Cook Jr.) to the electric chair for murder. As the gravity of the judgement haunts Mike, he begins to feel that maybe the kid wasn’t guilty after all. This doubt is heightened when he spots a weird, creepy stranger lurking inside the tenement block. A second identical murder leads Mike to be the suspect himself and, despite Jane never having actually clapped eyes on the stranger before, in order to clear her fiance’s name she needs to find Lorre’s bulgy-eyed fiend before it’s too late.

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The good thing about these short and cheap films was the freedom the studio gave the directors. Without executives breathing down their necks, they were pretty much left to their own devices allowing for experimentation (as long as it didn’t cost too much) and innovation. The camera work by Nicholas Musuraca is marvellous. Diagonal black lines slice the screen, shadows are impenetrably inky and the stylised expressionism of the hallucinatory dream sequence lifts the film well out of its Poverty Row roots.

Musuraca went on to paint with light and darkness over many of my personal favourites: ‘Cat People‘, ‘Curse of the Cat People‘, ‘Blood on the Moon‘, ‘The Seventh Victim‘ and the best of all film noirs ‘Out of the Past‘. Unfortunately no amount of fancy camerawork, dream sequences or flashbacks could alter the scoreline France 3, England 2.

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The feeling you get when England have lost again