Released eight years after the event, Robert Brooks’s In Cold Blood is an adaptation of the infamous book by Truman Capote, about an unfathomable crime that took place in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. Acting on a tip-off, newly released convicts Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) decided to rob the home of the Cutter family, convinced they had a safe full of cash. Armed with rope, a knife and a shotgun, and full of confidence that their plan was foolproof, they drove across state lines to the remote farm, with little intention of leaving any witnesses behind. The result was four dead bodies, and Smith and Hickock on the run.
Brooks methodically divided the film into parts: the first cuts together scenes of the perpetrators and their victims. The Cutters, the teen children especially, are all wholesome, mid-west innocence, the slightly saccharine scenes overlaid with a sentimental score – as opposed to the cool 60s jazz that drives the scenes with Smith and Hickock, both ex-convicts looking for their next big score. Smith is a greaser in a leather jacket, his oily hair slicked back. Addicted to painkillers after his leg was torn up in an accident, he’s an almost-crippled figure, haunted by searing memories of his childhood (whether or not his past in any way justifies his actions is up to the audience to decide). Hickock, in a terrific performance from then-newcomer Wilson, is the charismatic one, the guy with the plan, who – though he talks the talk – is unable to kill people himself, and needs someone with muscle.
The atmosphere is claustrophobic as Smith and Hickock drive the hundreds of miles to the Cutters’ home, their journey across the barren plains brilliantly evoked by cinematographer Conrad Hall, who won an Oscar for the film. The camera is ever present in the car with the men throughout much of the film, dialogue, rather than action, propelling the story. Their conversations shine a light on their past and present lives, a means of exploring their motivation, and establishing them as deluded and strangely naive, rather than just cold-hearted killers.
After their arrival at the farm, the film skips ahead, leaving the audience initially in the dark (the murders themselves are later relived in cruel detail when Smith and Hickock are finally caught and forced to confess). As the focus shifts to the following day, and the discovery of the bodies, In Cold Blood becomes less of a film noir and more of a police procedural, with the manhunt led by Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe). The murders are shocking, senseless, and the police, the community, and of course, the film itself, struggle – in the words of a journalist, who follows the tragic story through to its conclusion – to understand how a ‘violent, unknown force destroys a decent, ordinary family’.
This attempt at understanding, unfortunately, becomes one of the film’s weaknesses. There are moments of brilliance, but the narrative, with the exception of some terrific flashbacks, feels relentlessly unswerving, from the introduction of the characters, to their arrest, imprisonment, and finally, their execution. Capote was famously opposed to the death penalty, and Brooks carries across that sentiment. Their deaths are presented in a documentary-like style, which, although chilling, again robs the film of cinematic tension. In Cold Blood is at its best, stylistically, when it indulges in its noir leanings, rather than when it works as a docudrama. But with Quincy Jones’s excellent soundtrack, the captivating black and white cinematography, and the dynamism between Smith and Hickok, it’s still a compelling watch.
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