IMDB #247: In Cold Blood

Next up- the 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote’s seminal non-fiction work In Cold Blood.

The Key Players:

Our director, Richard Brooks, an academy award winning screenwriter and director, is most famous for playing muse to Elizabeth Taylor in films like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and The Last Time I Saw Paris. He also wrote the screenplays for some well received film noir work in Brute Force and Key Largo, which serves him well here.

Let’s get this joke out of the way- turns out Robert Blake is really convincing as a mentally unstable killer! But seriously, as the tortured Perry Smith, Blake shows real emotional depth and range- it’s just too bad he had to go and, y’know, allegedly kill his wife in 2002 (for which he was found not guilty). He’s most famous for a starring role in the tv series Baretta, and most famous to me for playing the completely creepy “Mystery Man” in David Lynch’s Lost Highway.

While many iterations of this story make Perry Smith a fascinating character, Scott Wilson’s performance is the only memorable one I’ve seen of the fast-talking Dick Hickock. He looked really familiar to me, but none of his other roles jump out, except perhaps as George Wilson in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Great Gatsby.

Elsewhere, John Forsythe has a few good scenes as the wearied Kansas Bureau of Investigation official Alvin Dewey.

Nobody plays Truman Capote, as it turns out- more on this later.

Truman Capote explains the genesis of the book. He says "idear" like my mom does.

The Story:

Tom Wolfe wrote the following about In Cold Blood the book:

"The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset ... Instead, the book's suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end."

And the same is basically true of the film. Released a year and a bit after Capote’s “new journalism” had been serialized in the New Yorker and then collected in a book, it was capitalizing on a story everyone already knew I guess this is where the true-crime fans got their kicks before Law & Order was around to crib from the headlines.

Hickock, working on the claim of an old cellmate that farmer Herb Clutter kept $10,000 in an office safe, recruits fellow parolee Smith to drive 400 miles and leave “no witnesses” for the perfect crime.

Shots of their road-trip are interspersed with the Clutter family, who are literally the nicest family that ever niced in nice-town- including an aww-moment where Herb Clutter catches his son smoking but pretends not to notice. Also daughter Nancy has to go help Jolene learn to bake a cherry pie, and help Roxy with her trumpet solo! Whatever will she do? Ah, sweet, innocent small town life. If only they knew what was approaching.

Finally, the outlaws arrive outside the homestead late at night- and then the film immediately cuts to the unfortunate neighbors that find the bodies.

Then it’s a police procedural for a while, as Hickock and Smith briefly sojourn to Mexico before getting picked up for stealing a car in Vegas. Finally they coax a confession out of the two, and we flashback to learn that there was no safe, and Smith flipped out and killed all four of them.

Then we get a little bit of life on death row, and it’s curtains, literally and figuratively.

The Artisticness:

How have I not mentioned yet that this movie has a ludicrously over-the-top score by Quincy Jones? Well, it does, and it reaches more jazzy horn crescendo’s than a Twilight-Zone episode. I guess it’s supposed to build tension, but mostly I wanted to snap my fingers and wear a purple hat.

Beyond that, there are some nice character moments, particularly for our two-cold blooded killers. Smith is an artistic soul that is more or less bullied into action by Hickock, who’s a brash manipulator with little concern for friends, though he does constantly call Smith “honey” or “baby.”

The decision not to include Truman Capote himself is an interesting one- I feel like it really helps the film in a lot of ways to play it straight, but that might be because I’m a little bit fatigued by the recent Capote and Infamous twofer, and the little man is a great writer but kind of a grating personality after a while.

It definitely hurts the film, however, after the killers are caught to have to randomly shoehorn in a Capote-surrogate reporter who goes and talks to the inmates on death row, and inexplicably feels the need to relate their weekly routine to us through voiceover.

Perry Smith’s issues with his father recur over and over, even in the climactic scene when he goes crazy- and it can be a little obvious and tiring, but also leads to nice moments when he sees his father’s face in the place of others. Blake plays Smith as a haunted, sympathetic character- maybe a little bit too much so, as he sells the anxiety and frustrated dreams, but not the stone killer that famously says the line “I thought he was a very nice gentleman... I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat."

But Wilson and Blake sell the love-hate relationship between the two friends, who goad each other into the robbery when the moment of truth comes outside the car, and fully explore the book’s claim that the two of them wouldn’t have done it alone, but together influenced each other’s personalities.

And for all the arbitrary pacing of the final scenes in prison, awaiting execution, the last scene of the film is a tense and powerful one- a stiff drop, if you will.

Overall- Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I have to say that it was much better than I expected, especially thanks to Wilson and Blake. What the film loses from the book is an exploration of how much the deaths impacted the culture and life of such a small Kansas town- the victims themselves are more or less stock, and the townsfolk no more than fleeting images.

It was already a two hour and fourteen minute film, but I think you could probably sacrifice some of the gallows wheel-spinning at the end, especially if you’re going to bother to have us spend time with the family pre-robbery in the beginning.

Not one of my all time favorites, but I liked it a lot more than an episode of Law & Order: SVU.

The Legacy:

This is definitely not a film that supercedes the material it was based on- despite four Oscar nominations (including Quincy Jones- What?) the book is the far more memorable.

And of course the writing of the book is the subject of two other movies: Infamous takes a little more time to show Capote’s New York celebutante life, but Capote mostly takes place in Holcomb. They’re both admirable films, and they both have Perry Smiths that can match Blake for intensity and gravitas, but neither Dick Hickock could hold a candle to Scott Wilson, or portray the relationship of the two effectively (maybe since they only appear in separate prison cells in those films).

Also, a TV movie was made in 1996, which was another Capote-less version of the story with Anthony Edwards as Hickock, Eric Roberts as Smith, and Sam Neil and Agent Dewey. Was it any good? This cover might help.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Okay, watch the above trailer: what the heck is so great about using so many real locations, extras, and look-alikes from the real crime for the film. It didn't really add much to it for me, having never been to Holcomb Kansas forty nine years ago. It's really just sort of a grossly morbid attempt at verisimilitude.

Leftover thoughts:

  • Why aren't there any movies about Capote writing Breakfast At Tiffany's?
  • I did like the touch where Smith references The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (#49), another film about robbery gone wrong.
  • There's a truly freaky sequence in Mexico where Hickock brings a senorita back to the motel and Smith imagines his dad charging into the room and beating her. I looked away for a second and then I had no idea what was happening.
  • The other bummest note for me was the inclusion of the main prosecutor's aggrandizing and righteous closing statement at the trial- I was just thinking boy, this is annoyingly preachy and then he pulled out a Bible.
Coming up on the Countdown:

Wednesday: Infernal Affairs

Friday: Arsenic And Old Lace

Monday: Network

0 Response to "IMDB #247: In Cold Blood"

Powered by Blogger