In Cold Blood (1967)

Directed by Richard Brooks

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In Cold Blood is the adaptation of Truman Capote’s famous nonfiction crime novel by the same name, documenting the slaughter of a Kansas family of four by two men named Dick and Perry.  These two killers are the focus of the film, though we do spend some time with those doing the investigating and those left in its wake.

We meet Dick and Perry before the murder has been committed.  Dick (Scott Wilson) learned from a fellow inmate a few years back that there is a Kansas farmer who at any given point in time keeps $10,000 in a safe in his home.  Dick decides he wants that money and, to protect himself, he doesn’t want to leave any witnesses.  Because he considers himself unable to commit murder, Dick recruits Perry (Robert Blake), a wounded, both emotionally and physically, ex-con who is rumored to have killed a man with a bike chain some years back.

They prepare to rob the home, and then we jump forward to the next morning, when the family of four has been slaughtered, and Dick and Perry are on the run.

Dick, for his part, seems quite calm, even as reports of the murder fill up the news.  He remains just as cocksure as ever, and Perry just as silent and tortured as he was before.  In flashbacks we will learn about his alcoholic mother and a threatening father.  These moments help us sympathize with him, and much of the film plays on that sympathy.

In Cold Blood is a crime thriller that waits until the end to show us the grizzly details of the murder.  Because we don’t see the killings until late in the film, we are given time to understand and, in some cases, even root for Dick and Perry.  One such moment happens while they drive through the desert on their way to Las Vegas.  They pick up two hitchhikers, a young boy and his old grandfather, who have subsisted on the three cents they earn from recycling glass bottles.  At first Dick scoffs at the notion, but soon there is a musical montage in which we watch them gleefully run through the desert, collecting hundreds of bottles and splitting the twelve dollars they turn them into.

This moment is easily the most wholesome moment of the film, and it’s certainly the closest thing to the heaven that Dick and Perry intended to fine with the $10,000.  The only problem is that they never found that treasure chest back in Kansas.

When we finally see that fateful sequence unfold it is riveting and haunting, as well put together as any such scene I’ve seen in recent memory (and considering the popularity of true crime stories, there’ve been a lot).  It’s not often that you will see a scene such as this, in all its tragic violence, and already have such a strong relationship with the two people doing the killing.

The eventual climax of the film will have to do not with the murder but with Perry’s own execution.  It’s as gut-wrenching as the murders, letting us watch the walls close in on Perry, deathly afraid.  One of the more memorable moments in the film has him stand beside a rain-streaked window in which the light through the rain makes it look like tears are streaming down his face.  When he’s about to be hung, he trembles in a way that makes me tremble.  He’s a killer, but we feel sympathy for him because, I suppose, of how heinous capital punishment is and because we see that the murder wasn’t premeditated, just the unfortunate result of falling in with the wrong co-conspirator and falling victim to impulses instilled in him by his violent father.

Perry is a tragic figure, especially when we learn that he was the one to pull the trigger and kill each of the four family members, seemingly instigated by a flashback to when his father pulled a gun on him while he was a young boy.  His death is in no way celebrated as the state’s revenge on a heartless killer.  Instead we glimpse into his psyche, see the pain instilled into him like that of an abused animal, and we’re left feeling, you know, not so great when the film ends.

So In Cold Blood is devastating, as it should be considering the material.  It’s a troubling but human portrait of two men (one more then the other) who never meant to kill anyone, let along four people, but who, when put together, became capable of startling violence.  It took the calculating Dick, plus the vulnerable, frightened Perry to create a monster capable of what happened that night in Kansas.

In Cold Blood reaches for a troubling sense of realism through this crime.  Every important character is given their due, seemingly a fair representation, and the film helps capture this realism by going so far as to film inside the real home of the Clutters, the murdered family.  In other cases people from that small Holcomb town were used as extras, and there’s something eerie about knowing that not only were the actors recreating the crime, almost moment by moment, but that they were doing it walking in their footsteps.

Up Next: Capote (2005), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Le Samourai (1967)

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