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Four Innocent and Two Guilty People Murdered

July 10th, 2010 · 3 Comments

In Cold Blood 1967 Robert Forsythe Robert Blake

In the month of July, I take a look at films released in my very favorite film stock and aspect ratio: black & white in anamorphic. Unless they’re being financed with credit cards, movies are rarely shot like this anymore because they’re impossible to sell to television. Yet these dreams sneak onto Turner Classic Movies every now and again …

In Cold Blood 1967 poster In Cold Blood dvd
In Cold Blood (1967)
Directed by Richard Brooks
Screenplay by Richard Brooks, based on the book by Truman Capote
Produced by Richard Brooks
134 minutes

Richard Brooks’ screen version of the “non-fiction novel” by Truman Capote opened the same year as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, so if there’s a debate about which 1967 film had the greatest impact on future of motion pictures, In Cold Blood is not in that debate. The murder of the Clutter family never warrants the thousands of man hours that were dedicated to analyzing and recreating the crime, but the film illustrates how a gifted actor, composer and cinematographer can elevate material into something magnificent. Ignoring suggestions by Columbia Pictures that Steve McQueen & Paul Newman play Perry Smith & Dick Hickock, Brooks cast unknowns in Robert Blake & Scott Wilson and tried to inject as much realism as possible into this true crime story, shooting at some of the actual locations and casting participants in the 1959 murder trial as extras.

Playing a natural born killer itched by the occasional impulse to do good, Robert Blake is brilliant. Quincy Jones composed a jazz score that initially seems inappropriate for heavy drama, but the music keeps the viewer off-balance, unsure of how we’re supposed to feel about what’s happening. The best reason of all to revisit In Cold Blood is the cinematography by Conrad Hall, one of the most vivid examples of the harsh beauty he would become renowned for. In terms of precision, lighting a black & white movie is like being called up to pitch in the majors and Hall was one of the league’s superstars; few movies using monochrome film stock or widescreen framing utilize the medium as gorgeously as In Cold Blood. Largely forgotten in spite of the number of actors he directed to Oscars, Richard Brooks brings intelligence and a point of view to the examination of a motiveless crime.

In Cold Blood 1967 title card

Stepping off a Greyhound bus in Kansas City with a guitar and most of his possessions in a box, Perry Smith (Robert Blake) makes an urgent call to the Kansas State Penitentiary, hoping the pastor there can put him in touch with a friend whose guidance he desperately needs. Instead, smooth talking ex-con Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) picks him up, violating Perry’s parole by returning him to Kansas. Dick is eager for Perry’s help breaking into a home 400 miles west in the town of Holcomb, where according to a former cellmate of Dick’s, farmer Herbert Clutter has $10,000 or “maybe more” locked in a safe. Chewing Aspirin for chronic leg pain he’s suffered since a motorcycle accident, Perry resists going along with the robbery, but is talked into it by Dick, who has never killed anyone and covets Perry’s experience in that area.

When Clutter, his wife, 16-year-old daughter Nancy (Brenda Currin) and 15-year-old son are found shot to death, FBI agent Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe) begins pursuing leads. With no shotgun shells and no fingerprints to work from, the feds catch a break when Dick’s cellmate comes forward to offer information in exchange for a reward. Dreaming of sunken treasure, Perry drags Dick down to Mexico, a trip his partner finances by cutting phony checks along the way. Missing his gravely ill father (Jeff Corey), Dick compels Perry to return with him to Kansas. Arrested in Las Vegas for a stolen car, the men are interrogated by Agent Dewey and his men. Also hovering around the case is reporter Bill Jensen (Paul Stewart) who is obsessed by the senselessness of the crime and seeks answers of how something like this could happen.

In Cold Blood 1967 Scott Wilson

In Cold Blood 1967 Robert Blake

In Cold Blood 1967 Scott Wilson Robert Blake

In Cold Blood 1967 Brenda Currin

In Cold Blood 1967 John Forsythe

In Cold Blood 1967 Charles McGraw

In Cold Blood 1967 Robert Blake Scott Wilson

In Cold Blood 1967 Robert Blake

In Cold Blood 1967 Brenda Currin

In Cold Blood 1967 Robert Blake

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 1,891 users: 83% for In Cold Blood

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Based on book · Dreams and visions · Father/son relationship · Forensic evidence · Gangsters and hoodlums · Interrogation · Murder mystery · Psycho killer · Psychoanalysis · Road trip · Small town · Train

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kristie // Jul 10, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    “Sometimes we get the creepy feeling we really are those killers”…
    I love that trailer!
    That movie has been on my list of must-sees forever. Thanks for reminding me, Joe.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 12, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Kristie: While I have all this credibility, I would also recommend the 1992 documentary Visions of Light. Here’s a clip where Conrad Hall and others talk about his work., including the shot in In Cold Blood where he discovered how to make raindrops reflect on Robert Blake’s face.

  • 3 Doug Daniel // Aug 30, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Among the 24 films he directed (and he wrote all but three), “In Cold Blood” is Richard Brooks’ masterpiece, I think. Many of the reasons it’s his best are described above. In researching an upcoming book, “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks,” to come out in spring 2011, I found Brooks’ dedication to reality on a par with Truman Capote’s. He filmed almost every scene where the real events took place – the bus station where the killers met, the house where the killings occurred, the courtroom where they were tried and sentenced to hang. The state prison was off limits, so they filmed at a prison in Colorado. Brooks was attracted to the story in part because he saw it as a vehicle to say something about capital punishment, which he opposed. I think he managed to present the killers as pathetic, not sympathetic, while making the argument that executing them doesn’t solve anything and diminishes the humanity of all involved. Robert Blake told me how pissed off he was when Brooks made him deliver his lines awaiting hanging in a low-key way and limited his movement. It wasn’t until later that Blake realized what Conrad Hall and Brooks had seen – the rain on the window and the shadows it cast on his face. The movie itself is like that – you don’t feel its true impact until later. – Douglass K. Daniel

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