NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
A good way to lose friends in Britain is to make a film or TV drama based on a relatively recent, headline-hogging crime story. It takes a few years for the heat to settle down before actors playing Myra Hindley or Fred West have a hope of getting a BAFTA. Historically, true crime was one of the things that most upset the BBFC (the censors once insisted that all the names be changed in films about the 18th Century Burke & Hare case) and yet there has been a long British film tradition of quality Chamber of Horrors/Newgate Calendar movies and TV, eg: Madeleine, 10 Rillington Place, A Pin to See the Peepshow, Dandelion Dead and The Young Poisoner’s Handbook as well as more disreputable efforts like Maria Marten, The Case of Charles Peace and Jack the Ripper.
This little-seen 1977 film, based on events from 1975, has never been embraced by any canon, perhaps because it’s less concerned with any issues raised by the case of Donald Nielson (there are plenty) than in nearly-blank reportage of his crimes. In its detached tone, it’s closer to American films like Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer or In Cold Blood. We just see ex-squaddie, ex-ballroom dance champion Nielson (Donald Sumpter, the long-time character player in a rare lead role) in training (running with weights in his pockets), poring over his scrapbooks (military service in Kenya, post office robberies in England), tending to his shotguns and other equipment, being coldly hateful to his wife (Marjorie Yates) and daughter (Sylvia O’Donnell), crying at the sad ending of a film on TV and speechless with fury at being helped on the street by a black man. And we see him in a black hood, carrying out the string of robberies which earned him his nickname – though they are all botched, with shotgunned corpses left behind as the killer gets away with only petty cash or nothing. In his most shocking, notorious crime, he plans and executes the kidnap of ‘heiress’ Lesley Whittle (Debbie Farrington). However, nothing goes right: Nielson is mute with disgust to find the teenager sleeps in the nude since it throws off his plans (annoyance with young women, including his daughter, is a recurrent if understated theme), and his overelaborate attempts to communicate via dymo-tape messages and scheduled calls to phone boxes are consistently thwarted. A scene as he waits to make a vital call to Lesley’s brother (Andrew Burt) is excruciating: two teenage girls commandeer two adjacent boxes and make long calls while darting in and out to giggle about something or other while Nielson stews in his car and eventually has to give up. Nielson tries to put on a fake voice (he seems to want to persuade his victims that he’s black though it comes out as Tarzanspeak) but it keeps slipping, and he needs to use his own soft Northern tones to explain things to the girl, whom he stashes deep in a drainage facility which becomes her grave.
The film was directed by Ian Merrick (who had few other credits, but produced the obscure horror Whispers of Fear and something called Englebert Humperdinck Spectacular), photographed by the interesting American Joe Magine (I Drink Your Blood, Squirm, Alligator, Mother’s Day, Alone in the Dark, Neon Maniacs) and tactfully scripted (with only Nielson and Whittle given their full names) by Michael Armstrong (director of Haunted House of Horror and Mark of the Devil and writer/star of Eskimo Nell). It was hard to see until the recent BFI Flipside release, mostly because it was so viciously attacked by the press – abetted by the police – that it was in effect banned. It’s possible that the newspapers and the police were less offended by the reatively unsensationaist treatment of the crimes than by the none-too-veiled indictment of press irresponsibility and police ineptitude in the case. When he goes to receive a call from the kidnapper, Lesley’s brother is assailed by a horde of reporters with questions, presumably brought in by a leak from the investigation. An inspector (David Swift) utters sympathetic platitudes, but this mess certainly contributes to the girl’s eventual death as much as happenstances like a courting couple who get in the way of the money drop, the crank call that sends Whittle off on a false trail with the cash (this may be the most horrible thing in the film) and Nielson’s impatience as his schemes blow up in his face. Armstrong restricted himself to scenes which could be verified from press reports and trial testimony, so it’s a lean, disturbing drama. The domestic scenes are curt and depressing, with Yates impressive as Nielson’s unfulfilled, wary wife – surely, Terence Davies didn’t see this before casting her as the mother in The Long Day Closes? – and O’Donnell snatching a tiny moment as she smiles secretly in relief at overhearing her father is going away on a business trip and won’t be around to keep her confined to quarters. With familiar faces Ruth Dunning, Lila Kaye, Gerry Sundquist and Peter Copley.
The BFI Flipside release – highly recommended, as is their entire line – includes Bob Bentley’s short Recluse (1980), another true crime story which depicts a bleak, cold and wet countryside that nags away at the main characters and leads to tragedy. Plus a useful booklet full of contextualising materials.