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In Cold Blood (1967) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

perry dick film clutter

Principal social theme: capital punishment

Columbia. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart, Jeff Corey, Gerald S. O’Laughlin, John Gallaudet, James Flavin, Charles McGraw, John McLiam, Ruth Storey, Will Geer, Vaughn Taylor, Duke Hobbie, Sheldon Allman, Sammy Thurman, Raymond Hatton, Paul Hough. Written by Richard Brooks based on the book by Truman Capote. Cinematography by Conrad Hall. Edited by Peter Zinner. Music by Quincy Jones. Produced and directed by Richard Brooks. B&W. 134 minutes.


Author Truman Capote spent years researching the case of killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who brutally killed four people during a bungled robbery in rural Kansas in November 1959. Capote got to know the killers quite well during their long wait on death row, and they opened up to him, revealing intimate details of their lives and their terrible crime. In the film, Capote’s role is assumed by Paul Stewart, playing a low-key magazine reporter who closely follows the case. When Capote published his book, he called it a “nonfiction novel,” an attempt to portray the events as close to reality as possible while maintaining a literary framework atypical of true crime stories. In Cold Blood was a literary sensation, and Richard Brooks’s 1967 film brilliantly translated the book to the screen while maintaining most of the power of Capote’s original. It was undoubtedly the most effective cinematic presentation of the issue of capital punishment of the 1960s. In 1996, a telefilm remake was undertaken, but it was merely a stagnant run-through compared with the original.


The film opens with credits, but without any title card. Former convict Perry Smith is traveling by bus to Kansas City, Missouri, to meet Dick Hickcock, who claims to have targeted a perfect score with a big payoff. While in prison, Hickcock made friends with Floyd Wells, who once worked for a family named Clutter, and he claimed they kept more than ten thousand dollars in a safe in their Kansas home. Dick goads Perry into pulling off the theft, and the two make an unusual team. Perry is a frustrated musician and Korean war veteran, quiet, moody, but with a hair-trigger temper. His dream is to go to Mexico and hunt for the lost gold of Cortes with treasure maps that he found. Dick is more polished and self-assured, a smooth and folksy talker who can become a persuasive confidence man. The next day, the two criminals undertake the four-hundred mile drive to the Clutter ranch in Holcomb, Kansas. The story does not proceed with a linear plot, as the troubled Smith has numerous flashbacks to his youth intercut with scenes of the Clutter family as they go about their normal everyday routine. Stopping en route, Perry and Dick pick up supplies for their intended burglary. Perry wants to include black stockings, but Dick insists that they will not leave any living witnesses. The screen blacks out as the two pull up to the Clutter ranch late at night.

The story resumes the next day with the grizzly discovery of the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Clutter and their two teenage children. The story then divides its attention between the two killers and the police as they try to solve the crime. Back in Missouri, Perry and Dick are desperate since their “big score” only netted them $43, and they embark on a series of petty crimes as Dick starts to pass bad checks. The police find their investigation stalled until they decide to post a reward. At the penitentiary, Floyd Wells claims the reward and informs the police that Dick had pumped him for information about the Clutters when they were cellmates. A manhunt for Hickcock is launched. Finally, Perry and Dick are picked up in Las Vegas for car theft, and Dick eventually breaks down during questioning. Through a flashback, the audience learns that Perry alone executed the four members of the Clutter family, largely to impress his overconfident partner. They are tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged, and Perry and Dick spend five years in adjoining cells on death row.

Journalist Jenson gains their trust and interviews them. Hickcock discusses the death penalty, which he supports, as do the other prisoners on death row, with the exception of Perry. As the hour of his execution nears, Perry tries to come to terms with his bitter memories of childhood and his brutal father. The death sentence is carried out during a dark, rainy night. Dick is executed first. For his last words, Perry wants to apologize, but he does not know to whom he should direct his comments. After Perry is hanged, the missing title card finally appears on screen: In Cold Blood .


Many factors, including the taut direction, the magnificent cinematography, and a strong sense of authenticity, combined in making this one of the most compelling of true-crime films. In Cold Blood was filmed, whenever possible, on the actual locations, such as the actual courtroom where the trial took place and the Clutter farm. Several jury members from the real-life trial appeared as jurors in the film. The most compelling factor, however, is the mesmerizing performances of the two leads, Robert Blake and Scott Wilson, as the amoral killers with a strange symbiotic relationship. Ironically, Blake was arrested and charged years later with the murder of his wife. The film also has a personal reference for Blake, whose character, Perry Smith, expressed admiration for Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) with Humphrey Bogart. Blake himself played a scene in that film with Bogie.

In the book, Capote took a detached, almost clinical approach to the developments in the story, leaving the reader to form his own opinions about capital punishment. Director Brooks takes a decided stand against capital punishment, although with an unusual emphasis. His viewpoint is that the death penalty is totally ineffective as a deterrent and therefore should be discarded. Other observations made by various characters during the film conclude that capital punishment never seems to be carried out against wealthy defendants and that most death row prisoners are psychologically unfit, so killing them is merely a convenient solution for a society that does not want to deal with these individuals. Brooks makes his point by skewing events at certain moments. For example, we hear Will Geer as the prosecuting attorney deliver a vindictive closing argument that is somewhat weakened by the reading of two contradictory biblical passages. His presentation jars the audience. The closing argument by the defense, however, is never heard. Students of this film could be challenged to debate to what extent the concepts highlighted by Brooks might offset the heinous nature of the crime committed by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.

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about 6 years ago

nice article