50 Years Ago This Week – In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood, an adaptation of Truman Capote’s critically acclaimed and wildly successful book, premiered in New York City on December 14 1967. The book, a milestone in the “true crime” genre (and, even more important, in the accomplished narrative non-fiction genre of the period that includes Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer-prize winning Armies of the Night), walked its readers though the horrifying and senseless murders of a Kansas family by two miscreants – small time parolees motivated by the mistaken jailhouse boast that the house was flush with cash – as well as the investigation that led to their capture, trail, and execution.
The movie, written and directed by Richard Brooks, was well-received and commercially successful. Writer-director Brooks was an experienced and accomplished hand. In 1952 he directed Humphrey Bogart in Deadline U.S.A. from his own script (which, like Cold Blood, also featured nicely composed frames and a tendency to stop the action for liberal speechifying); his writing career stretched a decade further back, and he would go on to helm a few notable seventies films, including the Warren Beatty vehicle $, and the touched-a-cultural-nerve Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
In Cold Blood makes some fine choices—starting with its casting. Brooks avoided choosing well-known players for his two leading villains. It was the second film and first prominent role for Scott Wilson (Dick); the former child actor Robert Blake (Perry) was more seasoned and would become a star, but in 1967 he was still largely a TV actor-for-hire. By withholding the implicit, instinctive audience appeal that would inevitably accompany the screen presence of Hollywood stars, Cold Blood avoids making anti-heroes of its outlaws. In fact, despite some half-hearted hand-waving class politics (Dick) and more than a good bit of psycho-babble (Perry, who we are invited to see as a victim as well as a murderer) the movie takes a rather clear-eyed and, yes, cold-blooded look at its dim-witted and thoroughly unappealing killers. Thus the New York Times’ guardian of cold-war liberalism Bosley Crowther, who loathed Bonnie and Clyde, very much approved of this “objective and real” film.
The movie has a number of strengths. There are some smart parallel constructions early on; both interrogation scenes are quite well done; and the long execution sequence, considering each man in turn, is handled with precision and restraint. And Quincy Jones did the music. Best of all, at the precipice of the murders Brooks pulls back, and cuts to the next day. This seemed like an inspired choice, and I had mixed feelings when the film flashed back to the home invasion an hour of movie time later. At the end of the day, however, the film would have been accused of cowardice if it withheld the murders (and that criticism would not have been unfair). But it was a strong move to spend that extra hour with the killers before we were explicitly confronted with the blood on their hands.
That said, at 134 minutes the film is a couple of reels longer than it needs to be—our killers are indeed unappealing, and in the too-many elaborate lower-stakes escapades they are more or less a drag to be with. Additionally, towards the end the movie takes an unfortunate turn, veering into new territory as it stakes out a strong position against the death penalty—morphing into some sort of overly-preachy-precursor to Dead Man Walking. With the title card following hard on the second hanging, the movie makes more than clear its position that it was a total of six victims who were killed in cold blood.
But ultimately this is a movie worth watching—it has two star performances, just not the ones you might think: Conrad Hall’s stunning cinematography, and, collectively, the stellar supporting cast. In Cold Blood is invariably more interesting when we are in the company of its secondary characters; the performers include John Forsythe, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, Paul Stewart, and Jeff Corey. As for Hall – who would shoot a number of seventies films, including Fat City, Smile, and Marathon Man – he pretty much puts on a clinic here, with striking black and white images and more than occasional forays into sharp deep focus. His work alone is worth the price of admission.
Watching the Interrogation of Dick
The Rain Cries for Perry
Jeff Corey as Mr. Hickock
Charles McGraw as Mr. Smith
Dead Man Walking
Witnesses to the Execution: Paul Stewart, John Forsythe, and Gerald S. O'Loughlin