In Cold Blood (the movie) seems so quaint in this era of tell-alls and Law & Order spin-offs, but I can’t imagine how the typical moviegoer felt watching this in 1967. A movie that offers the perspective of real-life killers, where a farm family is brutally murdered and justice is a blah solution? No thanks. When does Dr. Doolittle start?
Writer/director Richard Brooks’ Oscar-nominated adaptation holds up today because what’s shocking then is now an appropriately stark, bare-bones look at two losers who get in way over their heads. Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) recruits his friend, ex-con Perry Smith (Robert Blake), into a big score. While serving time in jail, Dick’s cellmate talked about working on the Clutter farm in Holcomb, Kansas. Dick says that the farm is a rustic gold mine; specifically, the old man has a safe filled with $10,000. All he and Perry have to do is drive 400 miles, get some supplies, and rob the rich bastards. Both men can then live the lives that have eluded them.
If you’ve watched Capote, Infamous, or have read Truman Capote’s masterpiece, you know what happened. Herbert Clutter kept little cash on hand, meaning Dick and Perry pretty much grabbed $43 and a radio in their late-night score. And the duo left the groggy, defenseless Clutter family (including two teenagers) dead, before escaping into the desolate Kansas night and terrifying the surrounding community.
Dick and Perry handle the burdens of their crime differently. Dick behaves like a cinematic tough guy, calling everyone ‘honey’ or ‘baby’ and enjoying the on-the-lam lifestyle of going against society — but only to a point. Perry, the triggerman, is built like a halfback, and Blake, with his sad façade, cuts a terrifying figure in his leather jacket. But underneath, Perry is really a sensitive soul who’s haunted by memories of a broken childhood and unfulfilled artistic fantasies.
Perry gets no thrill in wandering the way Dick does. His life came about because there were no other options, and you know he’s battling himself every step of the way. Blake’s terrific performance (and perhaps, sadly, a precursor of his scandalous future) puts the movie in a constant shade of gray, which is further enhanced by Conrad Hall’s stark black and white photography and Quincy Jones’ jingly score. Brooks doesn’t manipulate us with good cop-bad cop formalities or testosterone-driven scenes of task forces mobilizing. You don’t even see the good guys (led by John Forsythe) that much. There’s also very little actual on-screen violence.
What’s disturbing about In Cold Blood is that we see the human side of two men who committed a horrible crime, and that they’re decidedly average. Dick and Perry get their punishment in the end, but the cycle will continue. Somebody else will foolishly connect crime with freedom or let their stormy past get the best of them. Brooks’ straight-ahead depiction of a brutal crime and its less-than-hopeful finale is as relevant now as it was in 1967. Ordinary people commit horrible acts every day. Now, there’s just better coverage.