In Cold Blood (1967)

“A violent, unknown force destroys a decent, ordinary family. No clue, no logic. Makes us all feel frightened and vulnerable.”

After the Clutter family murders in 1959, people started locking their doors. Two madmen just walked into their Kansas home one night, and when they couldn’t find the safe containing $10,000 that they were told might be there, they killed the whole family. The event can be described that simply, and the crime was solved, but its impact and meaning generated national attention and grew further through the landmark works of art it inspired. The details of the shocking and mystifying murders, the search for killers and answers brought to many a new, distressing confirmation that society had changed, and that security was just an illusion when evil was this pervasive, bold and senseless. In 1966, Truman Capote’s book about the case became a best-seller, and was adapted by Richard Brooks into a film that remains brutally realistic, relevant and a masterly cinematic work.  

In November 1959, the Clutter family’s biggest catastrophes and concerns involved peppermints, a hope chest, cherry pie and church on Sunday. Little did they know that two ex-cons, acting on some prison gossip, were on their way to end their lives. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson play the madmen Perry and Dick, very different in background, confidence, social skills, and type of depravity but united in hatred, bigotry, instability and ruthlessness. They mock each other’s aspirations, but both are consumed by treasure hunts on different scales. Perry’s grand cinematic fantasies of adventures on the way to vast stores of gold shown on colourful treasure maps while he role plays as Humphrey Bogart, is only a more juvenile, elaborate and rewarding version of Dick’s obsession with tapping the walls to find some fictional safe that might equalize him with his hated rich. Perry recognition that both these quests are equally ridiculous and doomed to fail is the trigger for his murderous breakdown.

With horrifying detachment the madmen round, then tie up the four Clutter family members, and despite the father reassuring his family that these monsters will leave after getting some valuables, mother grasps the potential danger and tries to appeal to their conscience. It’s heartbreaking to watch her bargain with increasing desperation, “don’t hurt anybody,” then, “don’t hurt my children,” and finally, at least spare the daughter, just one of us. But nobody survives, and when the bodies are found Sunday morning, the procedural part of the film begins. All the clinical talk of knots, shoeprints, casings and reasons can’t conceal the terror this slaughter has struck into the lawmen and the wider community. From then, until the men hang for their crimes, the movie is a double mystery, piecing together clues of the killings and clues that might explain the makeup of the murderers.

Detective Dewey (John Forsythe) is grim, cool and collected, who feels that psychological excuses or efforts at understanding don’t matter and won’t help him find the criminals. Paul Stewart as the journalist Jensen looks for the story, not only of the crime but of the killers and their reasons. He assumes the role of narrator in the segment after the sentencing, becoming a stand-in for Brooks with the anti-capital punishment message, and also a documentarian figure like Capote. Charles McGraw has a powerful role as Perry’s father Tex. When questioned by Dewey, Tex inadvertently reveals he no longer knows his son but holds him instead to a fantasy personality. He praises Perry’s common sense, remorse and uprightness as well as the pain of the their relationship and the seeds of Perry’s inadequacy, bitterness and weak grasp on reality. Dick’s terminally ill father is played by Jeff Corey as a man not only resigned to death but to the possibility of his son’s evil.

The day after the real Dick and Perry were executed, Capote gave the movie rights, along with a good deal of trust and distance to Brooks, who would tell this story his way. The state of Kansas was understandably resistant to yet another wave of attention and tried to block the months of location scouting and research Brooks wanted, but he got his way. In his dedication to realism, Brooks ended up using as many original sites and people as possible–gas stations, the courtroom and seven of the actual jurors, the store and the actual suit salesman who got the fake check from Dick, and most importantly, the very home where the Clutters were murdered. Brooks rented the house for $15,000 and filming there, with the wind howling as it might have on that fateful night, the actors and crew couldn’t help but approach the work with the necessary solemnity.

The film didn’t follow the time jumps of Capote’s book but still depends on smaller character-revealing flashbacks within a larger event-teasing structure. The clever editing creates a sleight of hand style where the cuts and transitions don’t always show you the thing you expect to see next, but instead delay payoff while establishing inevitability. For example, by having the Clutter phone ring, then cutting to Perry making his own unrelated call from the bus station; by having Nancy Clutter look to the road as if she can see the ex-cons’ car on their journey far away; by having the prison inmate clearly prepare to tip the police about his former cellmate Dick, then cut to a call that turns out to be a stranger with a false lead; such edits connect people and events long before they must interact, making their meeting certain but the anticipation prolonged. The narrative also delays the details of the crime by showing us Dick and Perry drive up to the home, then leaving them after Perry implores Dick to “pull out before it’s too late.” It’s much later in the film, after the investigation, the men’s trip to Mexico and back, and their arrest and questioning, before we return to see exactly how that moment played out.

It’s all troubling and uneasy thanks to unpredictable and contrasting images, styles, values, characters and points of view. Docu-noir meets western, with nature presented as limitless, promising and wide, while interiors are tight, oppressive, shadowy and disturbing dead-ends. When the Clutters don’t show up for church, we are shown, from an eerie mystery POV inside the home, how their concerned neighbours come to check on them, and though nobody is there to provide such a vantage point, it creates a terrible dread that’s confirmed by the screams at the grisly discovery. That uncertainty and unresolved tension is shot through to the end, when Brooks has characters present at the hanging still asking why, why the murder, and now why the execution, what does it all amount to? Jensen answers by predicting the endless repetition of it all, the cycle of crime and punishment creating more tragedies and raising questions that will never be answered or made right, least of all with a pathetic last wish like Perry’s: “I want to apologize, but to whom?”

Criterion’s release includes supplemental features that offer a wealth of analysis and insight. Here are just a few notes on them:

Richard Brooks 1988 French TV interview: In this talk, Brooks mentions two studio objections he had to deal with. The first was convincing them that black and white was essential to convey the stark fear inherent in this material. The second was defending his choice of relatively unknown actors Wilson and Blake, when the studio was offering sure box office draws like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Brooks’ logic was sound: if someone as known and appealing as Newman comes to your home, you invite him in for coffee. No matter how good their acting, the familiarity of those faces would cancel out any sense of real threat.  

Douglass K. Daniel, biographer of Richard Brooks: Daniel’s discussion of Brooks’s career addresses the talents and qualities that suited him to adapting In Cold Blood, and shows how Brooks preferred adapting material to which he could add his own twists and pet messages. He decided that, given the public’s awareness of the case by 1967, combined with the way he would structure his film, it would work to skip the trial, which takes over 50 pages in the book, and reduce it to four minutes of screen time, including only the prosecutor’s brief but powerful argument for the death penalty. After that moment comes Brooks’s biggest departure and one that critics point to as the film’s big flaw. He fleshed out the death row segment into an emotional argument for abolishing capital punishment and, some say, a heavy-handed portrayal of Perry as a victim. Though this focus was not in Capote’s more neutral book, the author was bothered by something else entirely, namely the film’s de-emphasis on the Clutter family. It’s noted that, especially in the decade of Psycho, films tended to mine the psyches of villains and make them the more interesting characters, but I’d add that there was value in depicting the Clutters as an every-family. They become timeless and universal, able to stand in for all the innocent victims whose lives and surviving loved ones are devastated by senseless crime.

John Bailey discussing director of photography Conrad Hall: Hall had worked with Brooks before, on The Professionals (1966) and shared with the director a sensibility and taste for telling stories about “people in extremis, men in duress,” through broken narrative and a free-form structure a la Euro New Wave. Hall’s studies during the peak noir years and his resulting shadowy style had colleagues calling him the “prince of darkness,” and in In Cold Blood he creates an impressive progression from gritty documentary to a stylized noir. Bailey looks at the use of strong key light throughout the film, especially as a “weapon” in the form of flashlights during the murders, moving in aggressive, chaotic ways. Bailey examines that famous scene where the reflection of the rain on the window makes it seem like Perry is crying, and tells how Perry and Dick were lit differently, so that Perry, throughout the movie frequently obscured by, and far more comfortable in darkness and shadow, is suddenly exposed like “a spider in the middle of the room” under the flat fluorescent glare of the interrogation room.

Film historian Bobbie O’Steen on the film’s editing: O’Steen describes how editorial moments create suspense by trusting the audience to pick up the important details, leading them to question scene outcomes, and by favouring suggestion and reaction rather than graphically showing any deadly violence.

Gary Giddins on Quincy Jones’s music: Giddins talks about Jones’s career at the time and his music’s role in establishing the discordant tone through minimalist riffing, percussive sounds, repeated figures, and skilful integration with the diegetic sound and effects that play like notes themselves. He points out that the music in first four minutes of the film end with a punctuating single bass note, right before Perry is cut off by the nuns at the pay phone, and how this marks the beginning of the film proper. The ride through the desert while collecting soda bottles is set to a country & western tune, Perry’s dream of Vegas performing is set to a circus-y theme instead of him playing his guitar (since he’s not that great at it), and his flashbacks are marvels of editing that weave in present sources (like the radio stolen from the Clutters) to evocative music and sometimes make delusion indistinguishable from recollection.

Early in the Capote NBC interview, the author says he started on the Clutter story because he says it accommodated an aesthetic theory of his, that one can combine journalism with fictional technique. He wanted to create a work of art out of factual material that would have the same amount of impact as an imaginative creation. He believed that factual writing could reach the altitude of poetry and in fact increasingly had to, since readership trends were toward nonfiction and writers had to appeal to those readers.

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Full list of features on the Criterion In Cold Blood release:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with cinematographer John Bailey about director of photography Conrad Hall’s work in the film
  • New interview with film historian Bobbie O’Steen on the film’s editing
  • New interview with film critic and jazz historian Gary Giddins about Quincy Jones’s music for the film
  • New interview with writer Douglass K. Daniel on director Richard Brooks
  • Interview with Brooks from a 1988 episode of the French television series Cinéma cinemas
  • With Love from Truman, a short 1966 documentary featuring novelist Truman Capote, directed by Albert and David Maysles
  • Two archival NBC interviews with Capote: one following the author on a 1966 visit to Holcomb, Kansas, and the other conducted by Barbara Walters in 1967
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Chris Fujiwara

This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Aaron of Criterion Blues, Ruth of Silver Screenings and me, Kristina of Speakeasy. Click here to catch up on all the wonderful writing in conjunction with this event. 

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38 thoughts on “In Cold Blood (1967)”

  1. Kristina, this is a wonderfully written and heartbreaking account of the awful murders and the book and film that followed. I loved how you talked about what the Clutters’r ordinary concerns were, as they were unaware of the horror heading toward them down that dirt road.

    Thank you also for taking us through all the features of the DVD, which sound fascinating.

    A little aside: This is the only good book I never finished. I literally could not read any more, it was too harrowing. And decades later, when I saw Scott Wilson, in his 70s, on an episode of “Cold Case,” when I was home alone on a Sunday night, I slept with the lights on.

    Thank you again for a brilliant account of a heartrending story.

    1. Thanks so much, this is terror worse than any horror movie because it’s too real and senseless, and on top of being disturbing, it’s not that graphic, so your imagination adds worse things. I remember that Cold Case episode by the way. Thanks!

  2. Wow, Kristina this is an awesome review! Great analysis of the plot, the cinematography, the acting… Richard Brooks was right to cast two unknowns instead of bigger stars. Like he said, you would never be terrified of Paul Newman. I also liked your analysis of all the (fab!) Extras that come with.

    Great job! You’ve done us all proud.

    1. Thank you! The disc extras are really fascinating not just about the movie and technique and the people, but Capote’s interviews had some amazing comments about writing. Brooks made the right call and those actors rose to the occasion. Thanks, this is some fun event.

    1. Thanks very much, really appreciate that. Good disc with much more in the extras than I could describe here, just listed some things that stood out so I hope it gave an idea.

  3. Your expertly written review takes me back to 1965, when I was shocked yet mesermerized by the book. It was the first time I had read a novel that was based on a true story, although I had seen similar dramatizations of true crime stories, such as A Volcano Named White, on television. Then the movie came out and it was seemed to real. I am glad you mentioned the delay Brooks took in showing the murders. I thought I would be spared having to see them, and was caught completely off-guard. And finally that blunt ending. The execution made me sick to my stomach, even considering how gruesome and senseless the crime was. Your review is so vivid that it brought it all back to me, both seeing the movie and reading the book.

    1. That narrative move away from the murders for so long, and then coming back to them so easily as Perry confesses and tells the story, is yet another example of how breaking the scenes and images and expectations has such a weird, tense effect. And the executions are far more graphic than the murders, it’s true. It’s really something how this movie is put together. Thanks for reading and for the compliments.

    1. Worth the purchase, stunning picture quality and sound, and extras with much more to them than I could describe here. Thanks for reading.

  4. Great write up and no less then I would expect. Scary movie and one that is a true horror film. But still a great piece of filmmaking from Brooks and a cast of solid character players. I think the black and white filming worked best and added something to it as well. A newspaper realism perhaps.

    1. Thanks so much, it is scary in a way no horror picture could ever be, too real,too close to home. A stylish movie that nicely combines the documentary newsy look with noir, and you can see lots of influence on modern stuff here, from the “fooled you” scene cuts in Silence of the Lambs to Fincher and company.

  5. In Cold Blood is one movie I have avoided due to it’s topic. i did enjoy your review of it, didn’t realize what a good cast it had. I agree, too, that casting Paul Newman or Steve Mcqueen as the villains, would’ve probably made a less effective film for audiences. I still think I’m going to avoid this film, as it scares me just reading about it! Gah!!

    1. Understandable, it’s too real, and even though the killings are not really shown, there is such horror and dread to the whole situation, it’s far more disturbing than if it had been graphic. Thanks for reading.

  6. Excellent review Kristina. This is one of those films that you never forgot after your first viewing (and this Criterion edition is on my list for the B&N sale). A good friend of mine grew up in Thomasville, Ga., which is Scott Wilson’s hometown and his family was friends with the Wilson family. My friend saw this film on T.V.when he was about 10 years old and afterward whenever Scott would come back to town he would and stop by my friend’s family home for a visit and my buddy would be scared to death by his presence.
    I always though it was interesting to compare the Cullter murders in 1959 to the Manson murders 10 years later in 1969. After Clutter people people starting locking their doors as the 50’s drew to a close and the dawn of the turbulent 60’s and after Manson people realized that needed to start locking their doors from their children.

    1. Thank you. I can see why your friend would react that way, a role like this, especially to a relatively new actor has to “stick”– I bet they got those reactions everywhere they went. True about those brutal, senseless murders marking big changes in society.

  7. They just showed this film yesterday on TCM so it’s on the Watch TCM website for anyone who has access to it through their internet provider. It’s quite a depressing film, though, at least for me it was, especially in light of the recent tragedies in Paris. But you bring up some nice points, especially about how Perry is portrayed as a victim in a kind of heavyhanded way. It’s hard to see a cold-blooded killer as a victim. Robert Blake does play him well, though. I think he’s an actor largely forgotten but he also played the Burgess Meredith role in an updated version of Of Mice And Men and he was also a child actor (playing a small part of the Mexican boy who sells Humphrey Bogart part of the winning lottery ticket in Treasure Of The Sierra Madre).

    Tam

    1. Perry talks a lot about Treasure in the movie, and has that photo of Bogart in his cell, I’m not clear if that was true or added for the movie (?). I agree, Blake’s acting is superb, he was such a talent and Brooks made the right call on using those two vs. stars. Like you I can’t work up any sympathy or see them as victims. Thanks for reading

    1. Same here! It was so fun to co-host and this blogathon has introduced me to so many great new bloggers, including you! Really look forward to keeping up with your writing. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

  8. Although I was vaguely familiar with the scenario of this “based on a true story” film, I don’t think I realized that the director took the approach of using actual locations and participants in the dramatic retelling. Surely this was an influence on Kiarostami when he made the reenactment portions of CLOSE-UP. I will plan to take a look at this film when I get a chance, thanks for your review, and once again thanks for co-hosting this incredibly fun event.

    1. That surprised me too, about the jurors and the suit salesman. etc, how they must have felt “reliving” it, and how disturbing to be shooting in that house as well. I thought that too, when I read the Close-Up review in this blogathon (haven’t seen the movie yet). Thank you, we’re so impressed with all the fantastic writing in this blogathon, it was a film school crash course 🙂

        1. That’s quite the recommendation and not the only one I got for Close-up. I even mentioned this on the Criterion close-up podcast as part of our blogathon discussion. So I’m really eager to check that out and it was great to get to know new bloggers like you through this event. Look forward to reading more!

  9. Excellent writing, Kristina! I had to skip the plot details for the most part as I haven’t seen the film yet but plan to soon and will revisit your piece. Excellent work.

    1. Thanks! I really appreciate that since there was so much amazing writing out there this week. What a great time and thanks for the fun podcast experience again to review it all, best!

  10. A few months ago I saw this film in a theater with an audience, and I can attest to its intensity and the pall it can cast onto viewers (and Brooks was utterly right, as you note, to cast two unknown actors as the killers). Great post, with lots of interesting info on the Criterion extras (which is why Criterion DVDs are so fabulous!). And thanks for hosting this wonderful blogathon!

    1. Thanks so much for being part of it, I loved all the high-quality writing (like yours!) and new blogs that were part of it all. This is definitely a harrowing, disturbing film, very powerful and memorable movie. The Criterion release has tons of insight into the making and meaning of it.

  11. This has always been a tough movie for me to watch. Memorable black & white cinematography throughout makes the film a creepy work of art. The scenes where Blake’s character is reliving his past with the rain staining the window behind him is imprinted in my memory.

    1. Thanks for reading. It is very tough, the killing is terrifying even though they don’t show anything, and the stark B&W makes it grittier. That rain scene was a happy accident, happened by chance and they went with it.

  12. This is a movie that I had heard of before, but haven’t seen. I didn’t know it was based on a true story. I was glad to read your review and learn what it was about. I love your descriptions. You have a way of describing things that really helps the reader to see what you are talking about. It sounds like a very sad movie, not the type that I would watch, but I am glad to know about it and appreciate your analysis.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and for reading. It is sad and pretty intense, even for viewers used to crime and gritty films, mainly because knowing it’s real makes it that much more disturbing.

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