In Cold Blood (1967)

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.

In Cold Blood 1967 - 2 The convict who knows

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 . . .

In Cold Blood 1967 - 5 Nancy faces death

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.

In Cold Blood 1967 - 1 The clue

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.

In Cold Blood 1967 - 3 Noirish shadows (Dewey & Jensen)

Noirish shadows as Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe) and Bill Jensen (Paul Stewart) exchange views.

In Cold Blood 1967 - 6 Perry tells all

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.

In Cold Blood 1967 - 7 The double gibbetThe double gallows.

In Cold Blood 1967 - 8 Dick sees his fate

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 Cold Blood 1967 - 9 Perry's father as executioner

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.

This was remade as In Cold Blood (1996 TVM) and the case was the central focus of the movies Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006); all three movies are discussed here on Noirish.

On Amazon.com: In Cold Blood

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12 thoughts on “In Cold Blood (1967)

  1. Excellent argument for its noirish underpinnings John. Either way it is an unquestionable masterpiece of the cinema for all sorts of reasons, and a film that boils your blood on each repeat viewing. For one it is based on one of the most celebrated novels written in this century, and the research of it is legendary and has been made into films. Conrad Hall’s austere cinematography is textbook, and the entire cast led by Robert Blake is simply unforgettable. You have written an especially observant and impassioned review for it John, and I thank you!

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      Excellent argument for its noirish underpinnings

      Well, if the book runs to a second edition (which I sincerely hope it does!) I’ll try to pop an entry in on ICB plus at least a line or three on the associated movies — remake, Capote and Infamous — about which I’m going to be posting over the next couple of days.

      the entire cast led by Robert Blake is simply unforgettable

      For some reason it’s Paul Stewart whose performance really sticks in my mind. Oddly, I’ce come across a couple of discussions of ICB where his character is described as “not even named” (or thereabouts), yet he’s name loud and clear in the actual movie!

      • I also wish to acknowledge the splendid performance by Charles McGraw as Perry’s father. In one quiet understated scene he brings great empathy to this hard and dominating individual.
        Yes, he and the wonderful Paul Stewart were veterans of many notable films in the film noir canon. Thank you for this incisive review of Richard Brook’s amazing film.

    • Could not agree more. A terrific review of one of the best crime movies ever made. Black and white makes the day here and that was proven with the color tv version years later. In itself a good tv movie but the color is jarring and does nothing but detract from the sheer terror of this true story.
      I have seen it too many times to count and it has lost none of its impact.
      Thanks for the excellent and well deserved review of this original film classic.
      bob nearenberg

      • Many thanks for the kind words!
        I have seen it too many times to count and it has lost none of its impact.

        It had sufficient impact on me that after I first saw it, perhaps in the early 1970s, it was years before I could bring myself to watch it again. It really hit me hard.

        tv version years later. In itself a good tv movie

        I hadn’t seen it before watching it specially for the purposes of this site, and expected it to be a travesty. I was startled to discover how very good it was (and Roberts in it). As you imply, not a patch on the original, but by any other standards a very good piece of work.

  2. Pingback: In Cold Blood (1996 TVM) | Noirish

  3. Pingback: Capote (2005) | Noirish

  4. Pingback: Infamous (2006) | Noirish

  5. Pingback: In Cold Blood (1967) | timneath

  6. everything I would have said has been said. including “seen this film too many times to count “saw it in a theater once .only this past weekend(the anniversary of the crime ) I watched the dvd ,apparently remastered. not to be ghoulish but it is history ,for good or ill .one outstanding device If you catch it is the mug shot shown right around the time the narrator alludes to the two personalities being necessary to create a third, which is the real monster .they have the two cons in the same mug shot making the point subliminally as well .no law enforcement shows you a profile of one con and a front facing shot of an entirely different person. this is a purely cinematic use of a mug shot and I think it’s brilliant .and the gum chewing of perry under the mask combined w/ the amplification of his last heart beats ever (blake was never better)make for an intense final scene . for a film w/ very little in the way of special effects they sure used them at the right time .aside from the GRAPES OF WRATH by john ford, this is a rare instance of a film as highly regarded in cinematic circles as the book is in literary circles. I guess you all know about the connection between robert blake and the references to ” treasure of sierra madre “which are from the book. Ironic casting? last but not least, everyone but the main stars ,and I mean EVERYONE in the cast has been on GUNSMOKE at least twice. thanx.

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