Review: In Cold Blood

“I thought Mr Clutter was a very nice gentleman.”

Title:                         In Cold Blood

Certificate:               15

Director:                   Richard Brooks

Major Players:         Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe

Out Of Five:              4.5

The story’s well known.  If you read Truman Capote’s book or saw either Bennett Miller’s Capote or the less high-profile Infamous, you won’t need much reminding.  In 1959, drifters Perry Smith and Dick Hickock broke into the Clutter farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas.  The money they were after wasn’t there and the entire family was massacred – Herb Clutter, his wife and teenage son and daughter.

Smith and Hickock were arrested six weeks later, tried and sentenced to death the following year and executed in 1965.  The events were immortalised by Truman Capote in his factual novel, In Cold Blood, published in 1966.  The film was released only a year later.

Re-released in selected cinemas around the UK as of Friday, Richard Brooks’ version of events – he wrote the screenplay based on Capote’s book – uses a combination of dramatic and documentary techniques to produce a gripping, haunting film that’s lost none of its impact, despite being nearly 50 years old.  On its original release in this country, it was an X certificate, giving it a certain notoriety: teenagers like me at the time assumed it was all graphic gore. We were wrong.  Sparing in its portrayal of violence, it gives us just enough to fire our imagination – a bloody footprint, muffled gunshots and single, brief cries from the victims.  The actual murder scene itself is held back until the latter stages of the film.

Filmed in atmospheric black and white, it’s full of shadows, half-light and silhouettes.  It opens with a pair of headlights – they belong to a Greyhound bus – piercing through the dark and growing increasingly closer.  It’s an image echoed throughout the film, most notably as Smith and Hickock (Robert Blake and Scott Wilson respectively) approach the Clutter farmhouse.  The gloomy lighting often turns people silhouettes, still talking but faceless, and there’s a spectacular moment when Perry recollects his relationship with his father.  In his cell, he’s stood near the window and the pouring rain reflected on his face looks like tears, sweat and snot.  It’s not the only moment when the cinematography leaves you reaching for superlatives.

Rather than use the film to examine the ethics of the death penalty – there’s a passing debate towards the end, but it’s not given much in the way of significance – Brooks seems to be more driven by a quest for the truth, hence the more documentary style in the second half of the film, which covers the arrest, trial and execution.  And he even went as far as insisting on including actual locations from the murder in the film.  He used Capote’s book as his source material, but its accuracy has always been in question, with critics arguing that he changed events to suit the story.  Whatever, the resultant film chills to the bone with a directness that gives it a ring of truth.  And it’s helped by two powerful central performances from Blake and Wilson.

If there’s an emphasis on one of them, it’s Smith (Blake), the more artistic of the two, loving drawing and playing his guitar and dreaming of playing to audiences in Vegas.  But that’s just one side: the other is his hair trigger temper and, while he showed some compassion to the Clutter family, he was still responsible for shooting all of them.  He’s more sympathetic compared to Hickock (Wilson), an amoral con-man with a decidedly large chip on his shoulder.  And if you think Wilson looks familiar, he does: he had a recurring role in CSI:Crime Scene Investigation as casino owner, Sam Braun.

His isn’t the only familiar face.  Dewey, a friend of the Clutters and the stony faced detective who tracks down the killers, is John Forsythe, well before his Dynasty days as Blake Carrington.  And when the pair are on trial, we only ever see the speech from the prosecutor, a one scene cameo from Will Geer, who became a household name a few years later as Grandpa Walton.

The film was re-made in 1996 as a TV movie, keeping the same name, but this is easily superior in every way.  Its re-release is more than welcome, giving us the opportunity to appreciate something of a forgotten classic.  It is, to mimic the title, a cold blooded, film and all the more effective for it.

In Cold Blood is released in selected cinemas around the UK on Friday, 11 September and is also reviewed on Talking Pictures.

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