“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.
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
- 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.