In Cold Blood (1967)
Writer Truman Capote was one of the larger-than-life characters of the 20th century. He was openly gay at a time when it was dangerous, both physically and career-wise, and he had a voracious appetite for alcohol and mind-altering substances. It was the latter two that ultimately brought him down, but what exhausted him creatively, at least for a good part of the second half of his life, was what would be the novel he was best known for. Rather than being a book of fiction, In Cold Blood presented a profile of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, a pair of petty criminals who murdered an entire family when a home invasion robbery went wrong. Though non-fiction, it was written in novel form, letting the reader get to know not only the killers but those who were tasked with bringing them to justice.
Writer and director Richard Brooks brought Capote's novel to the big screen in 1967, filming a good portion of it in locations where the killers went, including the actual house that had belonged to the Clutter family. It did not sit well with the surviving members of the family who were not at the house that night, leading to one of the few omissions of characters, but Brooks himself sought to right some of the falsehoods from Capote's book, as the latter had become obsessed with Perry and, in some cases, made up some of the details. Many movies claim to be based on a true story, but In Cold Blood is about as close as they come.
Small-time ex-cons Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) and Perry Smith (Robert Blake) meet up to rob the house of the Clutter family, who own a large farm in Holcomb, Kansas. Dick has it on good authority from Floyd Wells, his former cellmate, that the Clutters have a safe somewhere in their home where they keep all their money. The two hope to get away with about 10 thousand dollars, split it, and head down to Mexico. However, it all goes wrong, resulting in the murders of Herbert (John McLiam) and Bonnie Clutter (Ruth Storey) and their teenage children, Nancy (Brenda Currin) and Kenyon (Paul Hough).
The small town is shaken, not knowing if the killings will repeat, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation gets involved, led by Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe). While Dick and Perry, who only earned 43 dollars from the robbery, pass some bad checks and head down to Mexico, Dewey and his crew try to find any clues they can to tell them who the killers are. Their big break is Wells, who hears the news and is able to convince the warden to let him speak to authorities. Meanwhile, Dick gets bored in Mexico and decides to return, first stopping in Kansas, and then heading to Las Vegas after they steal a car. Unfortunately, that is their undoing and, after some prompting once they are captured, Perry lays out the chilling details of what happened that night.
Brooks, and I'm sure Capote to a major degree, meant for In Cold Blood to not only present a true story of a couple of men who had no regard for human life, but to shine a light on a justice system that they thought was eerily similar. The crime took place in 1959, the two were apprehended in 1960 and executed in 1965, and at the time Kansas still used hanging for execution. While Dick was certainly the more hedonistic of the pair, Perry had a number of talents that didn't include murder. It was one of the first movies of its type to show murderers in an honest light, both how dangerous they are and how they are not just one-note stereotypes one would find in an old crime movie.
In Cold Blood was filmed in black and white, which for a prestige movie at the time was rare. It did save Brooks money, but ultimately he made the choice as he thought filming in color might romanticize Dick and Perry, which he had no intention of doing even if he had a point to make about how justice was carried out. It is shot in amazing crispness, with every shot having a photographic quality. It also tends to add to the unease and the violent undertones. Scott Wilson and Robert Blake that provide much of this as well, having surprising chemistry while playing two people who, in all honesty, pretty much hated each other.
There are a few things added, such as Bill Jensen (Paul Stewart), a journalist who follows Newton's investigation and eventually interviews both Dick and Perry. Truman Capote made sure he himself was never a character in the book, so this wasn't as much of an attempt to include him in some way - Stewart was around 15 years Capote's senior - but to help wrap things up for the audience at the end. I did find that, after their capture, the movie did seem to go on a bit longer than necessary, but it was Brooks's point not just to end where a normal film of its type would and leave the audience with a title card telling them the criminals' final fate. That was a goood decision because, although the bridge between the capture and execution drags, Perry's speech at the end is one of the best bits of acting Blake has ever done, and it leaves an emotional impact in seeing how coldly and impersonally the executions are carried out.
Strange thing is I didn't like the movie the first time I saw it, and I really can't say why. It is another one of those that I know that I saw, but for some reason it didn't stick with me when I did. I would still stand by what I have said before, which is that many older films, especially ones that are made to have a point, don't connect properly until one is at the point in life where it does. It doesn't leave the audience with any easy answers, such as why or what even triggered the killings, when both men could have walked out of the house, drove off and never been identified by any of the Clutters. In the end, neither of them gained anything from their actions and, up to the point where they get caught, were worse off than if they had never done it at all. In Cold Blood is an interesting study in the futility of violence, both state sanctioned and criminal, and still has the same impact as it did in 1967.
In Cold Blood (1967)
Time: 134 minutes
Starring: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart
Director: Richard Brooks