In Cold Blood 
d. Richard Brooks (1967)
The Criterion Collection Spine: #781
Blu-ray Release Date: November 17, 2015

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.

There’s something unsettling about true crime, and perhaps more so with the true crime novel, as Capote called In Cold Blood. On the one hand, it is valid and important to explore crime. On the other hand, the fascination we might feel, the morbid curiosity we may experience, the way we make a hit out of a tragedy . . . that’s disturbing. Though I’m starting this post this way, I’m not on here to moralize about any of this. I think Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood is an excellent film based on a revolutionary book. While I felt relief when the night-time murders were elided at the beginning of the film, I could not look away when the film returned to that terrible night later on when one of the characters told his story. I walked away from the film, which was released last month in a stacked Criterion Collection edition, feeling impressed and bemused that I was impressed.

In Cold Blood Cover

The film, like the novel, is a retelling of a true, senseless murder committed in the small farming town of Holcomb, Kansas, by Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, two petty criminals. Why did these two men, each around thirty years old, invade a small home and murder the father, mother, and two teen-age children who were there? Dick had been told by a cellmate that the farmer had a safe containing $10,000.00 in his home. Apparently that money was going to get Dick and Perry a ticket to the easy life. Of course, there was no safe, and barely any money — less than $50 — but for some reason the family was murdered anyway. For the next six weeks Dick and Perry roamed around the United States and Mexico before being arrested on December 30. One April 14, 1965, both were executed for their crime.

If you’ve read Capote’s novel, the film does not offer anything new in terms of plot. In fact, by streamlining the film, we lose some of the book’s strongest aspects, such as the stories from others in the Holcomb community. Furthermore, Perry and Dick, as written, are a bit more conventionally tormented than either appears to be in Capote’s book. All of that said, the film is still exceptionally well done, remaining compelling and thought provoking.

In Cold Blood 1

Robert Blake as Perry Smith.

Robert Blake and Scott Wilson, who play Perry and Dick respectively, are tremendously disturbing in their roles. Blake’s Perry is quiet, pensive, strangely sorrowful, and tormented by his past. It’s hard to believe he’d engage in such a senseless act. Wilson’s Dick is the charming sociopath, believably convincing shop owners to accept his bad checks.

Perry: It’s true! Really true! We’re on our way and never coming back. Never! And no regrets.
Dick: For you. You’re leaving nothing. What about my old man . . . and my mother? They’ll still be there when my checks start bouncing.
Perry: It’s nice the way you think about your folks.
Dick: Yeah! I’m a real thoughtful bastard.

Dick is thrilled and a bit scared by Perry’s more deeply seeded criminal mind.

In Cold Blood 2

Scott Wilson as Dick Hickock

Another reason the film excels is its photography. Shot by Conrad Hall, one of the greats, the black and white film has layers and layers of textures that tell a parallel story.

In Cold Blood 3

For me, the film, though it came out 48 years ago this week, is still provocative. It feels realistic, both because of the violence and because of the frankness, which, though tame by much of today’s standards, is still a bit shocking. Furthermore, Brooks filmed in the actual locations! The home where the murders took place, the cells where the murderers lived, and the warehouse where the hangings ended their lives. This lends the film a strange aura that I believe can be felt even if the viewer does not know that they’re situated in the actual spaces, less than a decade removed.

But again, I wonder why — or perhaps even whether — this is a “good” movie. What’s its purpose in retelling, with all of the authenticity it could muster, these senseless murders. We don’t get to know the victims well (and they’re not much more than fifties caricatures — “Golly! I’ll see you in church tomorrow!” — so it is not a fitting memorial to them. With the film we spend little time in the Holcomb community, so it is not an exploration on the effects of this crime in that setting. If we are looking for motive, Perry’s tortured past is brought up the most, and even presented as a force in the killings, but it isn’t particularly nuanced. If it was to make the audience confront the tragedies that happen in the very real world, well, it probably did this perfectly, while also calling on the audience’s fascination with the evil that lurks around the corner.

But that last one is possibly the best case I can make for the film — other than the fact that, as a film, it is very well made. This certainly was not the first murder in a rural community. It’s not like Dick and Perry did anything new or different. Their case is famous because Capote wrote about it, but it is far from unique, even in perfect little 1950s rural America. As the film brings the lives of Perry and Dick to a close, we see that those involved in the criminal justice system do not share the young writer’s hope that his work might make some difference. This is just another execution. These are, however, hated, just a couple more murders. Not the first this team has dealt with, and not the last. With this story, we zoom in on Holcomb, Kansas, but we zoom out again.

The Criterion Collection Edition: The film is good — and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since watching it — but the Criterion edition is so stacked with supplements that it becomes an essential release. These are all engaging, informative supplements.

  • First, we have a 16:59-minute interview with biographer Douglas K. Daniel talking mostly about Richard Brooks’ career, which started in journalism. Brooks followed in Capote’s shoes not only by creating this film based on Capote’s novel but also by doing a lot of his own research into the crime.
  • Next we get a 27:04-minute interview with cinematographer John Bailey talking mostly about Conrad Hall. As I mentioned briefly above, the cinematography is one of the reasons this film is as powerful as it is, and Bailey looks at Hall’s methods, including one of the film’s most famous and arresting images: when Perry is standing by a window talking about his father and the rain running down the window makes it look like tears are running down Perry’s face.
  • Gary Gidden’s is the next interviewee, talking about composer Quincy Jones’s score for 21:09 minutes. It’s a lovely, relatively detailed look at the score and Jones’s attention to the characters.
  • Following Gidden’s interview is a 14:35-minute interview with Bobbie O’Steen about editor Peter Zinner. I’m just starting to understand the power of a great editor, and O’Steen makes a strong case for why Zinner’s work on In Cold Blood is important, making us “see” things that actually never appear on screen.
  • Next we have a 18:24- minute interview with Richard Brooks himself from a 1988 episode of the French television program Cinéma cinémas. Brooks offers some of his thought process going into the film — he wanted black and white, he did not want Steve McQueen and Paul Newman — which he had to fight for to get the film to turn out the way he wanted.
  • The next two supplements focus on Truman Capote. I always love when Criterion throws in more than just interviews about the film and the film’s cast and crew, and these two supplements offer some great context as well as another fascinating aspect of the whole In Cold Blood story.
    • First, we get the 29:06-minute From Truman with Love, by the Maysles brothers. We get a lot more understanding as to just how invested Capote was in this story. He didn’t just swing into town, take a few interviews, and put the book together. He got to know the people involved, including the killers themselves. Here he shares some of the letters he got from Dick and Perry, with whom he obviously has more than a journalist’s relationship. This is probably my favorite of the very strong supplements.
    • Second, we get a 4:31-minute segment of a 1966 episode of the Today show called “Truman Capote in Holcomb, Kansas.” Truman lived among these people while writing the book, and many of them are willing to share their feelings, some of which are positive and some of which are, as is to be expected, negative.
    • Third, we get a 9:46-minute interview between Capote and Barbara Walters for the Today show. Here Capote not only talks about his book but also about the film, which he thought striking.
  • Last we get the film’s 2:56-minute trailer, which plays up the uncanny realism of the picture, including showing pictures of Dick and Perry and compares them with pictures of Wilson and Blake. I always watch the trailers, and this one, as they usually do, says a lot about how the film was originally pitched, though it remains more of a curiosity, especially among the fabulous features above.
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