[box cover]

In Cold Blood

When Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was published in 1966, it cannily exploited the human curiosity about monsters — what makes them, how do their minds warp, and why, even at the deterrent risk of capital punishment, do they commit such unspeakable acts? In telling his true story in a novelistic manner, Capote's work, essentially the first of its kind, captured the public's imagination and, in many instances, inspired its revulsion by inviting the reader to sympathize with the narrative's two dimwitted murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. This negative reaction was hardly a surprise. As a powerful, courtroom-hushing "Exhibit A" around which to construct an anti-death penalty polemic, Capote could not have chosen a more detestable pair of criminals. But even as his intent bristled a few readers, it's doubtful that they angrily slammed the book shut upon sussing out his not-so-hidden agenda — not the way Capote writes, with his brutally elegant prose masterfully complementing his suspenseful recounting of the crime's planning, its botched execution, and, finally, the urgent police investigation and pursuit that stretches from Kansas to Las Vegas and across the border into Mexico. In spite of — or more likely because of — its controversial nature, In Cold Blood was a genre-birthing sensation, which of course means that a film was rushed into production for release the following year, with the highly respected writer-director-producer Richard Brooks tapped as the man to bring the labyrinthine tale to life. Though an intelligent, well-regarded adapter of tony literary fare, from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (1958) to Conrad's Lord Jim (1965), Brooks's primary hurdle would be how to compensate for the absence of Capote's voice, which conferred a sense of class upon his otherwise pulpy material. His solution? Conrad L. Hall. The crime at the heart of In Cold Blood is the senseless multiple-murder of the Clutter family, the well-to-do pride of sleepy little Holcomb, Kansas. Unbeknownst to them, word of their sizable but hardly extravagant fortune has reached the ear of smooth talking con artist Dick Hickcock (Scott Wilson), who's been led to believe that the Clutter patriarch, Herbert (John McLiam), has $10,000 socked away in his home office's safe. It's a "perfect score," but Dick's got a problem — he's not a murderer. To remedy this, he teams up with a fellow former convict, Perry Smith (Robert Blake), the combustible product of a childhood of mental and physical abuse who dreams of one day crooning away on a nightclub stage in Las Vegas with his trusty Gibson guitar. Because of his tragic upbringing, Perry is undeniably the more sympathetic of the two marauders, which Brooks keenly plays up by dropping in flashbacks to his childhood, where, with his own eyes, he watched his mother drunkenly bed down with strange men until the one day his father caught her and whipped her with his belt. Perry has seen, and been subjected to, endless cruelty in his life, with some of the worst of it coming from those ostensibly on the side of the angels (e.g. the nuns at the orphanage). He is a stranger to the charitable act, and, as evidenced by the violent motorcycle accident that mangled his legs and left him an aspirin addict, a singularly luckless individual. All of these hardships receive near-unremitting emphasis from Brooks, who cleverly skips the restaging of the murder until late in the film (unlike Capote's book, where it is detailed at great length early on), at which point he clearly hopes to jar his audience by depicting this sensitive runt of a man as less a predator than a victim of the worst aspects of human nature, with his victims (and it must be stated that the Clutters, particularly Nancy, who is such an integral part of Capote's narrative, are seriously underdeveloped here), through no fault of their own, reaping the whirlwind of these past transgressions callously visited upon the meek and defenseless.

*          *          *

In Cold Blood is a powerful indictment of our violent society, the clarity of which must've been somehow insufficient for Brooks, who inexplicably weighs down the final leg of the film, depicting Dick and Perry waiting for their day to dangle, with a thoroughly unnecessary voiceover. Until that point, Brooks cogently makes his points without resorting to much sermonizing (though he's occasionally a bit heavy handed about linking the actions of the murderers and the Clutters through ostentatious cutting), all the while holding the audience's rapt attention even through long stretches of cross-country driving where little happens or is said. Give credit then to aforementioned cinematographer Conrad Hall for conjuring up some of the most brilliantly evocative high-contrast black-and-white cinematography ever put to film. Hall has always had a gift for expanding the visual vocabulary of his collaborators, and here he has convinced an old-school filmmaker to loosen up and go against the accepted notions of how a movie should look (it's worth noting that he was breaking the same ground with color photography that same year on Cool Hand Luke). Though the film is rife with examples of Hall's genius, the most widely cited (and endlessly quoted) shot — the "tears" reflected onto Perry's face from a rain-streaked window — was actually a bit of a happy accident, a sort of serendipitous endorsement that Hall was guiding Brooks in the right direction all along. If only his influence extended to the script — while an undeniably affecting work of empathy, Brooks's In Cold Blood just can't stick the landing. The final, slightly overcranked shot of Perry's plunge from the gallows winds up being memorable if only for its surprising lack of power. Still, for Hall's work, and the excellent performances from newcomer Wilson and current murder suspect Blake, it's pretty compelling stuff. Columbia TriStar presents In Cold Blood in a mostly crisp anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that does as much justice to Hall's cinematography as the not-quite-mint print will allow. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, which shows off Quincy Jones's jazzy score to pleasing effect. Extras are limited to a handful of trailers for other Sony product — a letdown considering the film's massively influential pedigree, as well as its own groundbreaking flourishes. It deserved better. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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