In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood, written for the screen and directed by Richard Brooks, based on the book by Truman Capote, starring Robert Blake (Perry Smith), Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock) and John Forsythe (Inspector Alvin Dewey of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation) (1967):

“Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15 [1959] (UPI) — A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged … There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut.”

Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel” was a best-selling sensation when it first appeared in 1965, serialized in the New Yorker. It followed the case of Smith and Hickock, arrested and eventually executed for the murders of the Clutter family in what seemed to be a robbery gone horribly awry (the money Hickock and Smith believed to be in the house never existed).

Two movies (Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Capote, and Infamous) have been recently made about Capote’s investigation and writing process for the book; countless critics have suggested that the book itself is fatally flawed, or at least skewed towards a certain inaccurate psychological construction of why the murders took place.

Richard Brooks’ film remains a fresh marvel more than 40 years after its release — in many ways, it’s much less dated than the Oscar-winning Bonnie and Clyde of the same year, as good as that picture also is. Blake and Wilson give pitch-perfect performances as the two killers, locked together by their own insufficiencies and dire personal histories into a murderous pas-de-deux. One feels empathy for the two, especially Blake’s tortured man-child, without losing sight of what they did.

The horror of the killings — held back in the film’s chronology until the killers confess late in the movie — is stark and almost sublime, zero at the bone, to quote Emily Dickinson. The DNA of this film propagated almost endlessly, and is now there in everything from Law and Order: SVU to David Fincher’s brilliant Zodiac. This is a very sad, very deftly written, performed and directed ‘Whydoneit’ which ultimately offers no real answer because there ultimately is no definitive answer.

John Forsythe does fine, understated work as the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who handles the case, and Quincy Jones supplies a fairly restrained musical counterpoint to the actions depicted and suggested on the screen. Highly recommended.

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