#305) In Cold Blood (1967)

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#305) In Cold Blood (1967)

OR “Fun With Dick and Perry”

Directed & Written by Richard Brooks. Based on the non-fiction novel by Truman Capote.

Class of 2008

The Plot: “In Cold Blood” is a detailed account of the crimes, arrest and execution of real-life criminals Dick Hickock & Perry Smith (Scott Wilson & Robert Blake). After Perry breaks his parole by travelling to Kansas, he and Dick murder Herbert Clutter (John McLiam) and his family on their farm in Holcomb. The two killers drive across the country evading the law, with Kansas Detective Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe) left to solve a murder with no witnesses, suspects, or motivations. What follows is a true-crime story heightened by cinematic expression, and brutally realized by post-code Hollywood.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “unsparing neo-realism”, singling out Brooks, Robert Blake, and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall.

But Does It Really?: It’s easy to forget “In Cold Blood” amidst all the landmark 1967 taboo-busting films, as well as Richard Brooks amidst the great writer/directors, but both are deserving of a place on the Registry. Brooks uses his efficient storytelling sensibilities and the freedom of New Hollywood to tell a bold, startling, compelling look at one of the most publicized crimes of the 20th century. The documentary-style aesthetic lends itself well to Smith and Hickock’s story; the movie neither glorifies nor sympathizes with these two, we’re just along for the ride. Perhaps Brooks is telling us that there is no such thing as “in cold blood”, and there is a complexity of emotions going on inside the head of every killer. Kudos to Richard Brooks and “In Cold Blood” for more-or-less inventing the true crime film genre.

Shout Outs: An unintentional meta-reference: Perry Smith’s favorite movie was “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, which gets referenced in the film by Robert Blake…who was in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”!

Everybody Gets One: TV’s Bachelor Father/Charlie/Blake Carrington: John Forsythe, giving a wonderfully subtle performance in a rare film role. And special mention to John McLiam, Ruth Storey, Brenda C. Curran and Paul Hough as the Clutters, aka “the vics”.

Wow, That’s Dated: One of Smith and Hickock’s criminal charges was passing bad personal checks. Is that even possible anymore?

Seriously, Oscars?: A critical and commercial hit, “In Cold Blood” managed four Oscar nominations. The film faced some remarkably stiff competition, losing Director, Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography to, respectively, “The Graduate”, “In the Heat of the Night”, and “Bonnie and Clyde”. Composer Quincy Jones was still a newcomer to the Hollywood scene, and his jazzy-counterpoint score lost to overdue veteran Elmer Bernstein for “Thoroughly Modern Millie”.

Other notes

  • In terms of historical accuracy, both the novel and film of “In Cold Blood” are Sergeant York Accurate: the tree is the same, they just changed a few leaves. Capote’s reportage was called into question from the beginning, and Richard Brooks made it a point not to reference the novel during production. A former journalist, Brooks opted to do his own research, and filmed many of the reenactments at their actual locations.
  • Both Robert Blake and Scott Wilson were cast based on their physical resemblance to the real Smith and Hickock. Wilson was playing a supporting part in “In the Heat of the Night” when star Sidney Poitier got in contact with Richard Brooks (Poitier’s breakthrough performance was in Brooks’ “Blackboard Jungle”) and suggested Wilson for the role of Hickock. Wilson did not know Poitier was responsible for his casting until years later.
  • Right out the gate, this film astonishes in its presentation, thanks to the cinematography of Conrad L. Hall, the score of Quincy Jones, and the editing of Peter Zinner. 1967 moviegoers could not have been ready for this movie’s rapid-fire intro.
  • The first part of the film follows the novel in its juxtaposition from Smith and Hickock to the Clutter family. Without anything too monumental occurring, there’s a lot of suspense waiting for these two paths to collide.
  • It’s a shame Scott Wilson’s career never took off the same way Robert Blake’s did. Wilson is very good playing the less showy of the two parts. His on-screen charm reminds me of Owen Wilson (no relation).
  • Also getting their due is character actor Charles McGraw. Known for his bit roles in films such as “The Birds” and “Spartacus”, McGraw finally gets a chance to shine in the pivotal role of Tex, Perry’s abusive father.
  • When do Dick and Perry run into Kit and Holly from “Badlands”? I’ll take “‘50s Serial Killers” for $400, Alex.
  • Maybe it’s the simple aesthetics or the black and white cinematography, but this whole film looks like it could have been made yesterday. Not bad for a 52-year-old movie.
  • The Clutter murder was filmed at the actual Clutter residence. How bizarre must that have been? I’m getting chills just thinking about it.
  • That’s Will Geer (aka Grandpa Walton) as the prosecutor, having fun chewing the scenery in his brief cameo. Makes you wonder what the defense attorneys’ argument sounded like. Were Twinkies a thing back then?
  • The only real-life location that denied permission to the film production was the Kansas State Penitentiary. The film’s final sequences were filmed on soundstages at the Columbia lot. Several items from the prison were purchased for authenticity, including the actual toilets from Hickock and Smith’s cells!

Legacy

  • Richard Brooks’ career hit its apex with “In Cold Blood”, but he did follow-up this film with “The Happy Ending”, starring John Forsythe and an Oscar-nominated turn by Jean Simmons, aka Mrs. Richard Brooks.
  • “In Cold Blood” made an unexpected star out of Robert Blake. He was eight years away from playing Detective Tony Baretta, and 34 years away from being accused of murdering his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakely (he was acquitted, but was fined $30 million for liability over Bonnie’s wrongful death).
  • Scott Wilson eventually found notoriety as Hershel Greene in “The Walking Dead”.
  • “In Cold Blood” was remade as a TV miniseries in 1996 with Eric Roberts and Anthony Edwards taking on Smith and Hickock. It’s…longer than the original, I give it that.

Further Viewing: The great Parallel Thinking Double Feature of the mid-2000s: we got TWO movies about Truman Capote and Harper Lee travelling to Kansas to research “In Cold Blood”. 2005’s “Capote” stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, while 2006’s “Infamous” stars Toby Jones and Sandra Bullock. “Capote” came first, so naturally that’s the one everyone assumes is better.

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