vt Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood
US / 134 minutes / bw / Pax, Columbia Dir & Pr & Scr: Richard Brooks Story: In Cold Blood (1966 “nonfiction novel”) by Truman Capote Cine: Conrad Hall Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Jeff Corey, John Gallaudet, James Flavin, Charles McGraw, Will Geer, John McLiam, Ruth Storey, Brenda C. Currin, Paul Hough, Vaughn Taylor, Duke Hobbie, Sheldon Allman, Sammy Thurman, Raymond Hatton, Teddy Eccles.
Floyd Wells (uncredited), the convict who knows.
While in the joint, con Dick Hickock (Wilson) allowed himself to be persuaded by cellmate Floyd Wells (uncredited) that Kansas farmer Herbert “Herb” W. Clutter (McLiam) is extremely wealthy and keeps a safe filled with at least $10,000 in his basement. Accordingly, as soon as Dick’s old friend, limping Korea Gold Star vet Perry Smith (Blake), is released on parole from his own sentence, Dick recruits him to go to the depths of Kansas and rob the family, Dick’s plan being that there’ll be “no survivors”. In parallel with this main narrative strand, we see scenes of the Clutters going about their daily business—Herb the genial paterfamilias, his neurotic wife Bonnie (Storey), their son Kenyon (Hough), whose smoking is an open secret between himself and his dad, and their sweet-sixteen-year-old daughter Nancy (Currin), in a flutter over the boyfriend she’s mad about. At last the family beds down for the night, and the two crooks quietly draw up in front of the farmhouse . . .
Nancy Clutter (Brenda C. Currin) faces her nemesis.
What happens next we don’t discover until late into the movie; for now, we cut straight to the following morning, a Sunday, with the cops investigating the scene of a vile mass murder. The only clues that Alvin Dewey (Forsythe) of the KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigations) and his team have at the outset are a distinctive shoeprint left in the blood of Herb Clutter and a less unusual but nonetheless identifiable one beside it, plus the military-style knots used in the ropes that bound the Clutters.
The incriminating shoeprint.
The thieves found, of course, no safe. They came away with $43, a pair of binoculars and a transistor radio as the profit from their crime. With Dick in the driver’s seat, they go on a spree of cashing dud checks before making their way to Mexico. However, very soon Dick decides he can’t stand Mexico—and Perry’s wild-eyed plans that they can make their fortune through hunting for Spanish bullion—so back into the US they come, traveling from their California entry point to Vegas, where their belongings are, first by hitchhiking and then in a stolen car. It’s the car that’s their undoing, because patrol cops spot it and bring them in; then, as their belongings are checked, their shoes are discovered.
Interrogation eventually breaks Dick, who gives a fanciful account of the murders, one that makes him look like an unwilling participant while Perry went wild. When Perry learns of this, he gives Dewey what we assume is the true story of the dreadful events of that night. (This reflects the fact that the definitive account of the murders occurs late in Capote’s book, because for a long time Perry wouldn’t tell him the details.) After this extended flashback we follow the two killers through conviction, sentencing, the wait for execution, and finally the double execution.
Noirish shadows as Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe) and Bill Jensen (Paul Stewart) exchange views.
Perry (Robert Blake) tells all to Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe).
Increasingly, our viewpoint comes to be that of veteran newsman Bill Jensen (Stewart), who has been on the case from the start and comes to fulfill the function of Capote’s voice in the original book. He tells us that the crime was one that neither man would have committed alone; it was only when together that they formed a third personality, distinct from either of their own, which could do such a deed. And it seems assuredly once more to be Capote speaking in the final scenes, set alongside the gallows in the prison annex known as The Corner, when Jensen is asked by a young colleague (Hobbie) about the purpose of the hanging. Jensen explains that the same old cycle of killing and judicial revenge will just repeat itself over and over again. “Maybe,” says the young reporter earnestly, “this [execution] will help to stop it.” Jensen gives a cynical, world-weary sigh. “It never has.” At the last it’s made plain to us that the title In Cold Blood refers not just to the murders of the Clutters; Jensen even describes the executions as themselves murders.
Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) faces his nemesis.
Although this is essentially a dramadoc, based on a groundbreaking work of crime writing, it’s presented in many ways very much as a film noir, from the use of black-and-white stock to the deployment of camera angles and shadows toward expressionist ends (not to mention the casting of various actors familiar from classic noir). Of the two principal characters, while the glib-talking Dick is the flamboyant one, the clever con artist, the apparent brains of the pair—and the obvious psychopath—it’s in fact Perry who has the greater self-awareness, the ability to think introspectively, the musical and artistic leanings, the capacity for courtesy and empathy (it’s he who stops Dick, with forceful revulsion, when the latter plans to rape Nancy), and the power to inspire our sympathy—even though, as it emerges, it was he who slew the Clutters.
Perry’s self-awareness is perhaps most evident in a quick exchange between himself and Dick during the commission of the crime but just prior to the actual murders. Desperate to find anything of value to steal, Perry goes through Nancy’s little purse and finds a dollar coin—which he promptly drops, having to crawl under her bed to retrieve it. Moments later he clatters downstairs, to where Dick has been searching. Says Dick, “What’s the matter?” Perry replies:
“Us. We’re the matter. We’re ridiculous. You tapping the walls for a safe that isn’t there. . . . And me, crawling around on the floor with my legs on fire, and all to steal a kid’s silver dollar. Ridiculous! This is stupid!”
We learn, too, much about Perry’s backstory—about his rodeo-competitor parents, his drunken, promiscuous mother Flo (Thurman), now dead, and his outwardly bluff and charming father Tex (McGraw), whose domineering ways have done as much as the nightmare of Korean service and the injuries he sustained to shape Perry. What drives Perry over the edge into an orgy of carnage is an illusion of his father standing there threatening to kill him with a shotgun—as indeed happened years ago. And, in Perry’s final moments, as he stands on the gallows trap, he turns and sees the face of the executioner as his father’s face.
In his final moments, Perry sees his father Tex (Charles McGraw) as the executioner.
Though the very opposite of sensationalist, this is a piece that has great power, part of that power coming from the use of black-and-white—had it been made in color, at least some of its impact would have been lost—and a great part of it coming from our foreknowledge of the dreadful events that are about to ensue. It was nominated for four Oscars—director, cinematography, screenplay, soundtrack (Quincy Jones)—and received nominations and the occasional win elsewhere. It was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2008. Viewed today, it seems even more potent than it was on first release.
On Amazon.com: In Cold Blood