Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was a huge hit when it was first released in 1966 – further establishing the writer’s celebrity status and creating a new literary term, the nonfiction novel, due to the book’s basis on factual events told in a novelistic style.
In Cold Blood details the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in a small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas by two ex-convicts – Dick Hickock and Perry Smith – and the subsequent capture, trial, conviction and execution of the two men on April 14th 1965.
While Richard Brooks’ film adaptation – made a year after the book’s release – remains loyal to the bulk of Capote’s narrative, there are key aspects that distinguish it as its own ‘beast’ and the director lent it the requisite cinematic flourishes to help it work independently. Brooks was insistent that Capote not see his script and be left alone by the studio heads to make decisions which would set it apart from standard Hollywood films of the time. He refused to cast big name stars or shoot in colour and was steadfast in capturing an unsentimental authenticity he felt the source material deserved.
Capote spent nearly seven years researching the case and getting to know Dick and Perry while they awaited execution in a Kansas jail, and this same level of commitment was shown by Brooks in bringing Capote’s vision to the screen. Locations visited by the real killers were used for key scenes including drugstores, gas stations, cafes and – most eerily of all – the actual Clutter farmhouse where the murders took place. This dedication to authenticity would have an indelible impact on the cast and crew, resulting in a film that has an unexplainable, nervy edge. Conrad ‘Prince of Darkness’ Hall’s fantastic cinematography is full of evocative contrasts and Quincy Jones’s Jazzily discordant score glides effortlessly across the film’s various tonal shifts.
The three act structure begins with Dick (Scott Wilson) and Perry (Robert Blake) meeting, preparing and driving to the Clutter family farm convinced that $10,000 awaits them in a hidden safe. The break-in and ensuing murders aren’t seen at first and we cut to the aftermath of the event with the killers having to flee while local authorities begin the hunt for clues and suspects. Special agent Alvin Dewey (Bruce Forsyth) heads up the investigation with an able team including investigative reporter Jensen (Paul Stewart) – apparently a nod to Capote himself – as the film shifts to a cat n’ mouse, cross country chase once the two men are identified.
The murders are revisited once the men are finally caught and confess to the crime, with Perry taking us back to the fateful night in his own attempt to grimly recall exactly what happened through a haze of a fractured mind. This six minute scene is one of the most chilling in cinema as the Clutter family – father Herb, his wife Bonnie and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon – are subjected to a frenzied and hurried attack once it’s revealed that there is no safe. The absence of any music save the sound of a haunting wind and Conrad Hall’s choice of flashlights to illuminate the action, combine to create a stifling claustrophobia which is all the more effective for the things we don’t see as those that we do.
Capote’s main criticism of the film was the way in which the Clutter family were sidelined, with the focus shifted mainly onto Dick and Perry – particularly the latter’s complex backstory, told mainly in flashback, that perhaps attempts to understand why he would commit such a horrendous act. Director Brooks was a humanist and an outspoken critic of the death penalty, which may explain the reasons for this shift of focus, and may also explain why so much time is spent on the film’s closing chapter, showing the execution of both men with a blunt, desolate realism. Capote’s book was a story of six people, whereas Brooks’s film is mosty of two, but in his following of these drifters and their ambitions from dark inception to realisation, capture and finally remorse, Brooks preempted the fascination we’ve all since developed in trying to comprehend the root causes of evil.
The 4k digital restoration is sublime, retaining the original anamorphic ratio to make the most of the wide open expanses of America’s midwest, and there are superb supplementary interviews with Capote following the release of the novel, and experts about Conrad Hall, Robert Brooks, Quincy Jones and editor Peter Zinner.
Blu Ray released 4th April