Must-See 500: In Cold Blood

Dick Hickock (left) and Perry Smith were two petty criminals who seemed to end up at the gallows through fate.

On the night of November 15, 1959, two ex-convicts on parole, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, broke into the home of Herb Clutter, a prosperous Kansas farmer. The two petty thieves were acting on a tip Hickock received in jail that Clutter kept a safe containing thousands of dollars in his home. The next morning, the entire Clutter family (including Herb, his wife Bonnie and teenaged children Kenyon and Nancy) was found dead, each one murdered by a single shotgun blast to the head. All that was stolen was a transistor radio and about $40 in cash. There was no safe in the house.

Famed socialite and author Truman Capote heard about the murders and traveled with best friend Harper Lee to Kansas, where he conducted extensive interviews with the townspeople, the federal investigators assigned to the case, and, once they were caught, Hickock and Smith themselves. After years of writing, Capote finally published In Cold Blood in 1966, a seminal piece of literature that established the genre of the “nonfiction novel,” a journalistic account of the murders and their aftermath told in a highly narrative form. A year later, director Richard Brooks released an incredibly faithful and (at the time) shocking adaptation of Capote’s book to wide critical acclaim. In Cold Blood was often mentioned in the same breath as films like Bonnie and Clyde and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and along with those films is considered to be one of the works that helped to finally topple the Hays Code (the set of moral rules that guided the depiction of sex, drugs and violence in Hollywood movies for almost 40 years).

When making this film, Brooks’ priority was realism. Striving to recreate the crime as faithfully as possible, Brooks chose to film in black and white film stock rather than color (this of course seems a paradox to us, but at the time news footage was still filmed in black and white, and was thus considered the proper aesthetic for realism, as opposed to color, which could still be distractingly rough, grainy or garish). The studio wanted superstars Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to play Hickock and Smith, but Brooks (thank God) vehemently opposed, insisting on two relative unknowns, Scott Wilson and Robert Blake (a former child actor). To top it off, much of the film was shot in the town where the murders occurred; in fact, they even used the Clutter house itself for the scenes of the robbery/murder. These touches end up being the film’s greatest strength. To borrow from Werner Herzog, there is a certain “voodoo of location” that seeps into the film during the murder scenes, a feeling of intense desperation and insanity channeled through the actors directly from this place. The gritty camerawork perfectly sets the film’s dark mood, the shadows almost lengthening the further we delve into the circumstances behind the senseless killing.

The narrative unfolds in slightly broken fashion, showing the buildup to the murders, jumping ahead to the efforts of police to find the killers, and finally flashing back to the massacre itself before closing with Hickock and Smith’s executions. There are also periodic flashbacks to scenes from Hickock and Smith’s pasts, particularly Smith’s troubled childhood. The film, like Capote’s book, is clearly intended as a scathing critique of capital punishment; the implication is that the state responds to senseless violence with senseless violence, rather than doing anything to prevent the impoverishment that leads to such desperate acts.

Many consider the sympathy shown toward the killers (Smith in particular) to be the major flaw in both Capote’s novel and Brooks’ film; an unhappy childhood is no excuse for cold-blooded murder, and so the two deserve to die. Considering my firm opposition to capital punishment, I feel uncomfortable ever saying that anyone deserves to die, but I appreciate that this film doesn’t go about making its argument in the most effective way. Other than a brief sequence at the beginning of the film, we know next to nothing about the Clutters; instead we spend the vast majority of the story with Dick and Perry, and screen time is tantamount to viewer sympathy. There is also a character, simply called the Journalist, who shows up during the investigation and maintains a presence all the way through the executions. Obviously this character is supposed to evoke Capote, although there is no physical resemblance whatsoever to the effeminate celebrity. The Journalist’s only purpose is to deliver heavy-handed dialogue regarding capital punishment, and why he suddenly begins narrating the story two-thirds of the way through the film (when Smith and Hickock get to Death Row) is uncertain. The film would’ve been far better off without him.

I thanked God that Paul Newman and Steve McQueen weren’t cast in this film, not because I don’t like those actors (indeed, they are quite possibly my two absolute favorites from that era), but this was not a film for stars. What defines Dick and Perry is their sheer averageness: these are just two not-too-bright petty criminals, neither of whom were capable of such a murder on their own, but collectively created some kind of third consciousness that killed the Clutters. As individuals, they are nobodies. Average joes. Newman and McQueen both carried a certain special aura of charm and attraction around them; cast them in this film, and you would’ve completely lost the point.

The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, and In Cold Blood features one of the most beautiful single shots of all time: minutes before his execution, Perry Smith describes a childhood incident where his father almost killed him with a shotgun, but the gun wasn’t loaded. As Perry speaks, his face stoic and unchanging, he stands next to a window, and the pouring rain beating against the window pane is reflected on to Perry’s face. Perry won’t cry, so the rain does the crying for him. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.

In Cold Blood received four Academy Award nominations, for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Score. The music was the breakout work of Quincy Jones, who went on to an extremely successful recording career, although I’m not such a big fan of this score, to be honest. It’s over the top, beating you over the head with the creepy and unsettling atmosphere already amply provided by the moody lighting. It’s far better in a few quieter moments, where a lonely acoustic guitar plucks away tentatively, evoking Perry Smith’s secret dreams of becoming a musician. I would have preferred it if that guitar had been used for the whole film. Luckily, Brooks had the sense to cut out the music altogether in the film’s most tense moments, especially the entire farmhouse sequence.

Two recent films dealt with this story more indirectly, following Truman Capote as their main character while he gathered information for his book. Both these films, Capote (2005, featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar-winning performance) and Infamous (2006, featuring British actor Toby Jones) are recommended, although I would say In Cold Blood beats them all, with its ominous stylistic touches and unnerving performances by Scott Wilson and Robert Blake.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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