IN COLD BLOOD (1967)
Written and Directed by Richard Brooks
Based on the nonfiction novel In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Cinematography by Conrad Hall
Starring Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe
In the "Life Imitates Art" department, we take a look at In Cold Blood, where alleged killer, Robert Blake portrays convicted killer, Perry Smith, in the adaptation of Truman Capote's true crime novel about the burglary and murder of the Clutter family in 1959 Holcomb, Kansas. I've not read the book so this will just be a review about the film on its own merits. And I'm not Larry King, so I won't subvert the justice system by talking about an open case, or rumors related to it, with a bunch of scumbag lawyers trying to make a name for themselves by getting their mugs on TV.
The highest marks go to Conrad Hall for his gorgeous, Oscar-nominated, black and white cinematography. He goes the extra mile by using elements of dark and light in sequences, adding to the storytelling without having to spell things out for the audience. There is an amazing scene of Perry talking about his troubled past with shadows from rain moving down his face like tears. That image alone makes the movie worth viewing. Richard Brooks and Hall make some great choices in their shot compositions conveying Perry’s history and psychotic episodes. This movie would make a great coffee table book. Occasionally, I hear people remark that they don't watch black and white movies and when they do, I usually shut them out of my life because I don't need an ignoramus like that wasting my time.
The script is structured well; it garnered Brooks an Oscar nomination, as did his directing. Taking us up to the incident, but not revealing what exactly happened until the confessions are given, and even when Perry starts, we're not certain how everything is going to play out. We see the guys on the lam intercut with the FBI investigation; watching the mistakes, lucky breaks, the clues and miscues as the paths converge into one point. Something is going on with Dick and Perry's relationship; they seem to be more than mere associates. Dick keeps calling Perry, “Honey,” and “Baby,” and Perry says they are "like a married couple." Maybe some homoerotic overtones, but it wasn't, or couldn't be, developed any further. After they are sentenced to be hanged, the movie spends time dealing with the idea of capital punishment. It didn’t feel forced or preachy, but was a natural extension of the circumstances and was nice unexpected turn in the story.
The acting is top notch and the main characters are given a nice range of emotions to deal with over the course of the movie. Scott Wilson is very convincing as Dick, the check-passing con man with the plan. He gets to be calm, angry, freaked out and never seems false. John Forsythe is believable as the G-man dealing with this horrific and incomprehensible crime. He is determined to get the culprits but can't understand why they did it. It's too bad my first thought was, "Hello, Charlie," when I saw him because his performance deserved better than that. One actor did stick out though or at least his voice did. He plays a cop, but he used to do voiceovers for Disney and MGM cartoons in the '40s and '50s and his voice is so distinct that he distracted me every time he was on screen.
And there was Mr. Blake in an excellent performance that is so good his lawyers better hope the jury hasn't seen this movie or Blake doesn't have a chance. He strikes a nice balance walking that fine line between sanity and insanity. Even though he's an ex-con, Perry is at times clear thinking and levelheaded with a good sense of humor and a kindness for children. Yet at the same time he is delusional and can turn on a dime into a psychotic state from unexpected stimuli. He comes off as very scary because he is believable and you never know when something is going to set him off. Blake with the help of Brooks doesn't play the part over the top and cartoonish.
One last point, I enjoyed Quincy Jones' jazz score, the fourth and final Oscar nomination, especially the scene where the fellas and a kid they picked up hitchhiking are collecting bottles for their 3-cent return. Bottles are actually used as percussion instruments; it worked well and had a cool, unique sound.
Film historians usually refer to Wells' Touch of Evil as the last film noir, but this film certainly has elements of the genre, so I'm surprised it doesn't get more mention. It is a very good movie and one of the few adaptations that makes me interested in reading the book after I've seen the movie. Now would be a good time to pick this up and rent it before the jury finishes deliberating and everyone runs out to get it to fill some sick fascination. If it wasn't for the prospects of war in Iraq, Blake could be as big a force on TV as O.J. was or at least Winona. I'm going to stop before I head off on that tangent and save it for my column at www.MaskedSocialCommentarySnobs.com