Viewer Guide: In Cold Blood and Beast

October 30, 2020 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 CLASSIC IN COLD BLOOD

In Cold Blood (1967)

Tonight’s classic is In Cold Blood, the 1967 crime drama written and directed by Richard Brooks.

A groundbreaking film of the “true crime” genre, In Cold Blood riveted audiences of the day with its documentary-like approach to Truman Capote’s best-selling nonfiction account of the shocking murders of a midwestern farm family in late 1959. Strikingly photographed by cinematographer Conrad Hall in stark black and white and featuring a discordant jazz score by Quincy Jones, the film’s early scenes deftly establish the fateful sequence of events leading up to the murders with a deepening sense of doom. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson play Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the ex-cons whose deluded “sure thing” heist scheme draws them to Holcomb, Kansas, to rob the well-to-do Clutter Family. Hickock had been convinced by a fellow inmate’s penitentiary tip that they will find a cash bonanza stashed in an office safe. With little solid information to go on, the hapless duo doggedly pursue their half-baked plan, which quickly spirals into senseless violence. Yet as the story transitions to the ensuing murder investigation and the pair’s ultimate capture by detective Alvin Dewey, played by John Forsythe, one has to wonder, whose blood is colder—the killers, or the society that chooses to dispose of them with no interest in their lifetimes of day-to-day hard luck that has led each man to a desperate point of no return.

Truman Capote’s 1966 “nonfiction novel” account of the Clutter Family murders rapidly became a best-selling sensation. An acquaintance of Capote’s, writer-director Richard Brooks reportedly read drafts of the manuscript before publication, and secured the movie rights over competition from a number of directors, including Otto Preminger. A hotheaded personality, Brooks resisted Columbia Studios’ pressure to cast marquee stars like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen as Smith and Hickcock, insisting instead on the relatively unknown Robert Blake and Scott Wilson to maintain his expressionistic documentary vision for the film. Determined to give the movie as much realism as he could, Brooks shot on authentic locations around Holcomb, Kansas, including in the actual Clutter family house. In 2005, the story behind Capote’s writing of In Cold Blood inspired two competing film projects: Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Academy Award-winning performance; and Infamous, released the following year with British actor Toby Jones portraying the idiosyncratic writer. And in a sordid but strangely fitting coda to In Cold Blood, in 2002 actor Robert Blake was accused of the murder of his wife Bonnie Lee Bakley; he was ultimately found liable for Bakley’s death in a 2005 civil suit.

REEL 13 INDIE BEAST

Beast (2017)

Tonight’s indie is Beast, a 2017 psychological thriller written and directed by Michael Pearce.

Jessie Buckley stars as Moll, a young woman living on the British island of Jersey in the English Channel. Moll lives at home with her mother, played by Geraldine James, and helps out with caring for her father who’s struggling with dementia. With a job as a tour bus guide as well as singing in her mother’s choir, Moll seems to have a harmonious existence—except that her inner psychology is as stormy as the dramatic coastline. Now in her late 20s, Moll is more than ready to leave the insular world of Jersey, fed up with being treated like a child or a servant by her icily controlling mother, and is even upstaged at her own birthday party by her sister’s pregnancy announcement. Escaping to a local disco, Moll grabs a measure of momentary freedom, but when a potential hook-up starts to get rough, she’s rescued by a scruffy but dashing young stranger named Pascal, played by Johnny Flynn. Ignoring her mother’s disapproval, Moll’s headstrong flirtation with Pascal rapidly escalates into a passionate romance. But persistent TV news reports on the kidnapping and murder of three teenage girls form a dark cloud over Moll’s newfound bliss, which darkens further when Moll learns that Pascal has been involved in a prior assault. Sympathetically minded—and harboring her own unsettling secrets—Moll doesn’t want to believe Pascal could be the “beast” who’s been terrorizing the island, but how can she really be sure?

Writer-director Michael Pearce grew up on the British channel island of Jersey, and was partly inspired to write his script by the actual “Beast of Jersey” who terrorized the community in the 60s and 70s. With Beast marking her feature film debut, Jessye Buckley also received acclaim for her performance in Wild Rose, along with roles in the streaming series Chernobyl and Fargo. Co-star Johnny Flynn’s recent credits include the Young Albert Einstein installment of National Geographic’s “Genius” series, the 2018 multi-part adaptation of Vanity Fair and the latest movie version of Jane Austen’s Emma.

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