of the more controversial motion pictures to emerge out of what film historians
call “New Hollywood” was In Cold Blood,
which was released to theaters “for mature audiences only.” The New Hollywood
movement began around 1966, when the Production Code finally started to
collapse (and before the movie ratings were instituted) and studios commenced
allowing auteur filmmakers to do
whatever the hell they wanted. The year 1967 was especially a groundbreaking
one with the release of such “adult” fare as Bonnie and Clyde, The
Graduate, In the Heat of the Night,
and In Cold Blood.
In Cold Blood is based on the
“non-fiction novel” by Truman Capote about the true crime of 1959 in which an
innocent family of four in Kansas were murdered by two ex-cons who believed
there was $10,000 hidden in a safe in the house (there wasn’t). Capote spent
several years writing the book, interviewing law enforcement men involved in
the case, as well as the two killers themselves—Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.
The accused were eventually executed in 1965. In Cold Blood turned out to be, along with Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, one of the two most
successful true crime books ever published.
Brooks was a Hollywood veteran who had been working in the industry since
before World War II. In the 1950s, he made a name for himself as a
writer/director, especially as an adapter of previously existing material. He
had won an Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Elmer
Gantry (1960) and had brought to the screen other acclaimed pictures such
as Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and The Professionals (1966). Brooks
received Oscar nominations for both Director and Adapted Screenplay for In Cold Blood.
filmed in black and white at a time when most movies were in color, the picture
is a stark, dark, and ultra-realistic depiction of two psychologically-damaged
men, brilliantly portrayed by Robert Blake as Smith and Scott Wilson as
Hickock. Brooks’ reasoning to film in black and white was that “documentaries
were usually in black and white” and he wanted that true-to-life feel. Conrad
Hall, the director of photography, used a palette of extreme blacks and harsh
whites to achieve a higher than usual contrast (Hall was also nominated for an
Oscar). This served to emphasize the darkness that resided in these two men’s
In Cold Blood is a tough picture
to watch. It’s very disturbing, even today. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have
its rewards. As a study of darkness, and a display of virtuoso filmmaking, it’s
easily one of the better motion pictures of that decade. Brooks considered it
to be the best film he ever made, and he’s probably right.
movie is very faithful to the book with a few minor exceptions, such as the
addition of a reporter character who provides some voice-over narration, and
the complete elimination of the trial. The only scene from the trial in the film
is the prosecutor’s closing argument for the death penalty. Oddly, one figure
is totally absent from the movie, and that is Truman Capote himself. As shown
in the recent pictures, Capote (2005)
and Infamous (2006), the author
inserted himself into the convicted men’s incarcerated lives on an intimate
level. (It is highly recommended that after viewing In Cold Blood, one might want to take a look at Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, an often overlooked and
underrated biopic on Capote that deals closely with the author’s relationship
with Perry Smith, who in this case is played by none other than Daniel Craig!).
have said that In Cold Blood is a
statement against the death penalty, but in many ways, it’s also the opposite.
While Brooks does a great job in evoking some sympathy for the killers by
portraying the hard life Perry had as a child and other circumstances that
brought the two killers to commit murder, it’s also difficult not to side with
the jury. The Clutter family—the victims—are presented in such a compassionate
light that, in the end—at least for this viewer—the verdict makes complete
Criterion Collection disc presents a new 4K digital restoration with 5.1
surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (and the jazz score is by Quincy
Jones—also nominated for an Oscar!). Visually, the Blu-ray could not be more
striking. The abundance of supplements is also impressive. There are new
interviews with: a) Author Daniel K. Daniel on director Brooks, and this is
very enlightening; b) Cinematographer John Bailey about DP Conrad Hall and his
work; c) Film historian Bobbie O’Steen on the film’s editing; and d) Film
historian and jazz critic Gary Giddins about Jones’ score. Vintage interviews
include one with Brooks from 1988; one with Capote from 1966 during a visit to
the crime scene; and one with Capote from 1967 conducted by Barbara Walters.
There is also a short 1966 documentary on Capote directed by Albert and David
Maysles. The film’s trailer and an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara in the
enclosed booklet rounds out this excellent package.
In Cold Blood is not for the
faint-hearted, but it is also hard-hitting, arresting, and brilliantly made.
It’s a must for fans of crime drama and those who appreciate a little art with