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IN COLD BLOOD (1967)

Director & Screenplay: Richard Brooks

From Novel: Truman Capote

Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart, Gerald S. OíLoughlin, Jeff Corey, Will Geer.

Running Length: Black and White, approx 134 minutes
MPAA Classification: R

Genre: True Crime/Drama

Reviewed by Jim Lewis

IN COLD BLOOD is the book by Truman Capote that some say changed American literature. It must be very special, because thatís not a phrase Iíve heard about such giants as Faulkner, Hemingway or Mark Twain. It is the book under construction in the recent Oscar-nominated film "Capote." The 1967 film of the book is very interesting and thought provoking in a number of ways.

If it were filmed today, I suspect it would be a bloodfest, with new technology for showing gore and shotgun-snuffing of restrained victims. Viewers would recoil and gag before getting pitchforks and torches to lynch the cinematic killers.

However, this movie made me sad and thoughtful. While there is no gore--there is a graphic execution. I suspect death penalty advocates will approve, and anti death penalty folks will not be swayed, but both will like the movie.

Itís been a while since I watched a B&W film. The photography of low rent surroundings looked to me like low production values--for a few minutes. I reveal this shortcoming in myself to aid those who might watch for sixty seconds and misguidedly think this movie will have nothing for them. The movie and story are excellent. In five minutes, I was hooked.

The structure of the story is unique. Act one introduces both the killers and the victims, stopping moments before the home invasion. Act two is the discovery of the carnage (without showing it) and the actions of the authorities in the investigation. Act three is the capture and imprisonment, with flashbacks to the actual crime, continuing to the resolution. The effect, for me, was engrossing, yet I developed no hatred, no lust for vengeance. I also spilled no tears.

The portrayals of killers Richard "Dick" Hickock (Scott Wilson) and Perry Smith (Robert Blake) are very low key and real. There is no glamour to their outlaw life. Their existence is grim. The young ex-convicts get together to discuss the robbery of a farm family believed to have a lot of cash on hand. The plan includes "leaving no witnesses."

We meet both their fathers and learn something of their childhoods. The violence in Perry Smithís upbringing provides some understanding of the roots of his rage. However, the glimpse of a cause shines no light of forgiveness on the criminals. The whole episode is so botched and pointless, the victims are bullied and subdued, Smith and Hickock could have just left with the $43.00.

The victim Clutter family is the real deal, the salt of the earth, the American Dream of a comfortable, loving, productive Midwest family. Filmed in daylight and almost harsh interior light, showing kindness toward each other and warm friendships in the community, they look like us, or how we wish we were. The certainty of their impending violent deaths creates an anxious stillness, like watching home video of an unsuspecting family canoeing toward Niagara Falls.

The ordinariness of the characters and their surroundings is striking, because such a terrible event approaches. These two killers are no Butch and Sundance. They have no particular charm. But alone, they are not evil men.

Dick Hickock was a bad check passer/con man whose future would likely have been stints in and out of prison. Perry Smith was a troubled adult with a very violent childhood. A mid-movie reference to "war hero" hangs briefly in the air, but these men are so full of fantasy that it is forgotten. In the final minutes, in a throwaway moment, we learn there is more to that story.

When not killing people, they are affable, enthusiastic, pleasant-neighbor kind of people. Hitchhikers and travelers spend time with them and, no doubt, would be character references for these men they met on the road. Together, Smith and Hickock, like bleach and ammonia, became toxic beyond even their own imaginations.

Questions for the coffee chat on this movie include:

What does the phrase "in cold blood" mean to you? What kind of murder isnít in cold blood? Do the two killers deserve different degrees of punishment? What would this movie be like in color?

My experience says many of the last two generations of film-goers cannot tolerate a black-and-white film. If you can abide B&W, this is one that shouldnít be missed. For the rest, Ted Turner -- get to colorizing it.

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