In Cold Blood (1967)
In Cold Blood (1967)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 14 min.

Release Date: December 14th, 1967 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Richard Brooks Actors: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Jeff Corey, John Gallaudet, James Flavin

 


 

P

erry Smith (Robert Blake) rides through Holcomb on an express train to Kansas City, Missouri, carrying with him a suitcase, an enormous parcel tied up with rope, and a guitar slung over his back. Richard “Dick” Hickock (Scott Wilson) drives through Edgerton in his car, with a rifle carelessly resting in his backseat, heading to pick up Perry for what is supposed to be the perfect score. It’s soon revealed that Smith is on parole and forbidden to cross into Kansas – or so warns Reverend James Post from the penitentiary, where Perry calls to inquire about a fellow inmate.

“How come you always go into a trance every time you look in a mirror?” As Smith daydreams about a singing career in Vegas and $60 million in buried Spanish treasure, his partner in crime, Dick, details their upcoming job: to rob a safe filled with $10,000 in cash. Before they have an opportunity to commit the armed robbery (which goes awry, of course, resulting in revolting brutalities), they discuss all sorts of endlessly relevant social issues, such as religion, the division of the rich and the poor, infidelity, injustices, and the idea that everyone seeks to cheat someone out of something as an intrinsic component of human existence (at the conclusion, there’s even commentary on the failures of psychiatric help for prisoners). As it turns out, Dick is quite the conman, very much believing his own pessimistic ideas about mankind.

“Why’d you kill him?” “No special reason.” Written and directed by Richard Brooks, based on the book by Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood” intends to chronicle, quite uncommonly, the motives and reasoning behind murderers. Although there are numerous other supporting characters – from the unsuspecting, innocent, atypically wholesome victims to the authorities in pursuit – the narrative specifically places Perry and Dick center stage, forcing the audience to follow the plot from their perspective (such malicious, deranged personas are typically reserved for lesser parts, such as the villains in “Wild at Heart” and “Fargo”). Right from the start, it’s evident that they’re up to no good (sharp shadows and ominous music aid in this suggestion); but even as their conversations shed light on specific crimes in their checkered pasts, it’s not immediately apparent that there won’t be some level of redemption or revelations concerning their actions. For anyone unfamiliar with the true-to-life events, the story unfolds in an unguessable, engrossing manner.

Even when it comes to the merciless slaying of the Clutter family, Brooks has chosen some unexpected organizational decisions. Not only does he employ flashbacks for a few clues into the killers’ minds and methods, but he also skips over the actual murders, opting instead to concentrate on the aftermath. Because of this, there’s an air of film noir mystery to the proceedings, obscuring the exact order of the violence and leaving the specifics of the deeds as unknowns for viewers to solve alongside the detectives working the case.

The “why” of the heinous acts are, perversely, the most alluring aspect of the film. Since the victims are given so little screentime, they barely register as complex, sympathetic individuals; instead, it’s Perry and Dick who receive enough character development (through accounts from family and acquaintances and law enforcement, as well as from personal exchanges about their manipulative ways and natural-born-killer instincts) to make the seemingly senseless, motiveless crimes less impromptu (not unlike the authoritative explanations in “Psycho” and “Frenzy”). By delving into the viewpoints of the antagonists, as despicable or grotesque as they may be, they become the stars, vying for some semblance of empathy (perhaps comparable to “Bonnie and Clyde” from the same year). Strangely, even when they’re at their lowest point, there’s an unexpected playfulness in a last-ditch attempt to make some money (laughing as they collect bottles on the side of the road for the 3-cent refund value).

Indeed, there’s a pitiable desperation in their meandering spree of destruction, as if they’re perpetually lost in an escalating hell of their own making, looking over their shoulders as their freedoms steadily disappear, and worrying about the faithfulness of a partner with less and less to lose. The premise also generates a hysteria around the ostensible randomness of the victims and the lack of strong motives; no one is safe. At one point, a leading investigator insinuates that countless, seemingly insignificant people could be capable of spontaneous barbarism; anyone can snap and be driven to extreme reactions. And at the end, journalist Jensen (Paul Stewart) offers up his painfully accurate thoughts on society placing the blame on convenient sources, only to have the very same atrocities occur all over again. Although “In Cold Blood” is overlong (not only going into great detail about the Clutter massacre, but also recreating courtroom antics and a death row stretch), it’s nevertheless a fascinating examination of a horrendous crime, merging a police procedural with startling insights into the originations and circumstances of murder (all the way to the close, where justice gets a shot at grim revenge).

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10