Directed by Richard Brooks and based on Truman Capote’s famous non-fiction novel of the same name, In Cold Blood is an intricate account of the gruesome murders that took place one night in Kansas, 1959. Four members of a decent farming family called the Clutter family were slaughtered brutally inside their home by two young killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. “Who would kill four people in cold blood for a radio, a pair of binoculars and $40 in cash?” asks Alvin Dewey, the chief investigating officer of the Clutter case, when he reflects on the casual manner in which the killers have committed the crime and the items they took from the Clutters’ home.
In Cold Blood: Richard Brooks’ chilling true-crime masterpiece based on Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel
Smith and Hickock learned about Herbert Clutter and his family from a former cellmate of Hickcock’s named Floyd Wells. The Clutters were a nice and religious family and had no enemies. Wells somehow got the notion that Clutter kept a big safe in his house which contained plenty of cash. Wells knows this because he worked at the Clutter farm at one point. Hickock planned the robbery, with Smith reluctantly deciding to go along. Hickock thought his plan was perfect as he had decided to not leave any witnesses. However, upon arrival at the Clutter house, they realized that they were misinformed. They didn’t find any safe because Herbert only dealt with checks.
The victims had been already bound and gagged. Hickock looked everywhere in the house for the safe but failed to find it. The perpetually edgy Smith thought their plan was absurd and told Hickock, “We’re ridiculous. You tapping on the walls for a safe that isn’t there, tap-tap-tap, like some nutty woodpecker. And me, crawling around on the floor with my legs on fire, and all to steal a kid’s silver dollar.” You could say that Smith was the sensible of the two. But this didn’t exactly help, considering his unstable nature. It was Smith who slit Herbert’s throat and shot him in the head. They had then proceeded to kill the rest of the family, including his wife and two children, before leaving.
The film re-enacts these events that took place in a span of six weeks – beginning with the killers’ meeting and ending with their eventual arrest and subsequent execution five years later – with chilling accuracy, although this was the subject of much debate. It’s a masterfully crafted crime drama that works both as a thrilling police procedural and a brilliant character study. It provides an insight into the killers’ psychologies and their complex relationship along with their backgrounds, which provide some clues as to how they turned out this way. The initial plan was to cast Paul Newman and Steve McQueen as the two leads. However, this plan was dropped considering the fact that their good looks would lend the film an unrealistic look.
Smith and Hickock were ex-convicts and are portrayed by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson respectively. After seeing the film, one can see how Blake and Wilson are the right fit for these roles. They perfectly convey the naiveté, fears and anxieties of the killers. The film is a master class in filmmaking. Two of the most striking things about this film are its sharp black-and-white cinematography and mesmerizing editing. This sort of seamless and precise editing style has now become one of the signature trademarks of director Steven Spielberg. You can note the film’s influence, especially in Spielberg’s Munich. Master cinematographer Conrad Hall’s (Road to Perdition, Fat City) experiments with chiaroscuro lighting techniques resulted in a scene that is now regarded by many filmmakers as one of the most iconic scenes of all time.
The case shocked many and remained the most sensational crime in America at the time until the Zodiac killer came along a decade later. When Capote heard of the crime, he became interested in it and wanted to write about the whole thing before the killers were even apprehended. The book generated some controversy because of Capote’s sympathetic portrayal of Smith and Hickock. It’s an intensely haunting work not just because of the crime itself and the absurdity of it, but the way in which Capote places you firmly in the minds of the two perpetrators. You almost feel as if you are living their lives and this is what sends the shivers up your spine. The final execution scene will haunt you and remain in your mind long after the end credits have rolled.