Originally posted in 2015 as part of Argumentative August, on MovieRob.
In Cold Blood is a 1967 film directed by Richard Brooks and starring Robert Blake, John Forsyth and Scott Wilson. It’s based on the book of the same name written by Truman Capote, published in 1966.
In Cold Blood tells the story of real life criminals Perry Smith (Blake) and Dick Hickock (Wilson) who go on the run across the American South after having murdered the Clutter family – Herb a farmer, his wife and their two children. Appended in Las Vegas, Perry and Dick then face trial and the death penalty for their crimes.
In 2008, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
In Cold Blood is a chilling, sad tale shot entirely in black and white. The atmosphere is further enhanced by using the same real life locations to the crime, such as the genuine Clutter house where the murders took place and courtroom where the men were held to trial. Incredibly six of the jurors in the film were also jurors in the real life case. The film was well received upon release and remains a popular classic to this day. Having the big name stars helped, as well as the popularity of the original book by Capote which was a best seller in the US and turned him into a household name.
It differs to modern efforts Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006) by focusing only on the Clutter case and the two murderers involved. We go further back in time to before Dick and Perry kill the family, which all stemmed from a tip-off in jail about a safe inside the farmhouse said to contain tens of thousands of dollars. No safe was ever found and the family were killed for a measly forty dollars.
In a move that I think was very clever, we don’t actually see the reconstruction of the murder until the end of the film. We cut to the ‘straight after’ and then follow Perry and Dick on the run, learning more about them as people. There is a slight sympathetic nod to the men, especially Perry – who is shown to be quite sensitive – for instance refusing to let Dick rape the daughter of Herb Clutter. There is almost a childlike naivety about him at times.
Dick is more of a regular ‘jack the lad’ – an angry young man who takes what he wants because why shouldn’t he? But without seeing the attack and murder of the innocent Clutter family in its dreadful entirety, it is possible to empathise slightly with the two drifters. The story is clever as it shows us different ends of the spectrum and aren’t we humans just so darn confusing?
One minute Dick and Perry collect bottles from the roadside with a young boy as a way of making money and it’s all very nice and innocent. I think maybe ‘fun’ music was even playing in this scene. Five minutes later they nonchalantly plan to kill the next person who offers them a ride hitchhiking. I mean, killing really means nothing to them.
When they inevitably get caught, in Nevada, they are taken back to Kansas to be questioned by the police and tried in court. Though the trial scenes are not as prominent in this film as some other courtroom movies, the questioning and protocol is very important to the story as without a confession it would have been hard to charge the men with a lack of concrete evidence and of course, no witnesses.
There’s a degree of Lieutenant Columbo (“I got one last question”) in the film as from the beginning we know the men are guilty, it’s just a case of them getting caught and then the police proving it. I suppose the only ambiguity is whether they will be hanged or not, but if you’ve read the book or seen Capote (or Infamous) you’ll know the answer anyway.
All in all I think In Cold Blood is a fantastic film. Respectful, insightful and entertaining throughout. It was a pretty big movie when it was released so the quality is high. It has good writing, acting, direction and a genuine authentic feel which is both eerie and provoking.
One of the things I personally like about In Cold Blood is the way it made me think. Dick and Perry did deserve to die for their crime against the Clutter family – four innocent people who did nothing to merit what happened that night. But at the same time we’re given insight into their lives, their own struggles and tragedies. I don’t mean you feel sorry for them exactly, but it is interesting how two men – seemingly normal and happy a lot of them time, can then turn into cold blooded killers for the sake of a few dollars.
Oh, and that film poster at the top – that’s the real Dick and Perry.