In Cold Blood (Columbia Pictures, R)

This movie is about the story, not the gore.


Originally released in 1967, In Cold Blood was a triumphant representation of Truman Capote’s gripping novel about a family murdered in a small town. In light of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s fantastic Oscar-nominated performance in Capote, it seems only right that we should get another look at this cinematic masterpiece.

The story is simple enough: Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Richard “Dick” Hickock (Scott Wilson) are a couple of low-level criminals who concoct the “perfect” crime. Dick obtains information from another convict about a family in rural Kansas, the Clutters, who have $10,000 locked in a safe in their home (remember this is in 1967; that amount of cash was tremendous). Dick and Perry come from meager backgrounds so this opportunity to rake in the dough is too good to pass up.

Dick knew he needed to recruit a strong arm—a lá Perry—in case things got rough. Once they commence with the plan, things get screwy and the next thing you know, the “too good to be true” family are all murdered and Dick and Perry only end up with $42. The perfect crime gone perfectly wrong.

The movie then follows the police as they try to figure out not only who murdered the Clutters but, more importantly, why. Perry and Dick make their way to Mexico to wait things out, but soon return to the United States where they are picked up due to the fact that the same inmate who gave Dick the original information is the one who rats them out.

The story then takes the final dramatic turn as Perry and Dick wait for their time to be up on death row. After a lengthy appeal process, the two would-be robbers’ fates are sealed as they themselves are disposed of In Cold Blood. Well, they actually saw it coming, but I feel the ending was as dramatic as the rest of the movie.

Director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Looking for Mr. Goodbar) did a terrific job bringing Capote’s story to life. He spent the first half of the movie creating stereotypes of the victims and the killers. He—along with original music from the legendary Quincy Jones—did all he could to let us know that Perry and Dick were the bad guys and that the Clutters were the spitting image of the Cleavers. From tumbling tumbleweeds and dark, heavy organ music while Perry was onscreen to the quick, light string plunking when the Clutters were on, it was clear who the bad guys were and who was going to get whacked.

As the implied whacking never truly appeared onscreen, I began to get frustrated due to my own appetite for exploding carcasses. Then it occurred to me: This movie is about the story, not the gore. I began to reflect on how movies can actually tell a story—what a refreshing thing.

Robert Blake delivered an inspired performance as the story’s main killer, Perry Smith. Blake was in good company with both Scott Wilson (Dead Man Walking, The Right Stuff) and John Forsythe (as lawman Alvin Dewey) as they helped retell the gruesome story. In fact, all of the actors in this production seemed to have the necessary compassion for telling this story without cheesing up their roles. All involved took on their roles with a badge of honor. Maybe it was the delicate nature of the story or the fact that the legendary Capote wrote it himself, but this amount of commitment to character is rarely seen in Hollywood today.

One final triumph of Brooks’ directing came as Perry relived the last moments of the Clutters’ lives to the police. This is the sequence where Brook explains to the audience that Perry and Dick were separate types of criminals. However, when these two particular types became intertwined, a hybrid emerged: a beast with the will to perform these malicious acts. While Brooks finally reveals the scene of the family being gunned down, it is obvious that the murders are not the focus of this story. Instead it is the intriguing combination of events (a missed connection, misinformation, the lighting of an emotional fuse) that led to the lives of four innocents being extinguished.

Finally, I was stricken with the cold realization that they just don’t make movies as good as this anymore. Where I have been brainwashed to only expect stunning special effects and massive explosions in today’s “theatrical” environment, this film reminded me that the story should be what’s important. Capote’s In Cold Blood is a testament to what good movies should be about—compelling storylines, complex characters—and reaffirms that true stories (Ray, Boys Don’t Cry, Monster) are often more fascinating than fiction.

At Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre for one week only, March 3–9.

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