In Cold Blood: Strangers in the Night

In the depth of the Depression, Richard Brooks was riding freight trains after dropping out of journalism school. Eventually he did get a job as a newspaper reporter and embarked on a career that would lead him to the movies where he gained fame as a fast-working, reliable director with a social conscience. Perhaps it came as no great surprise that Truman Capote would choose Brooks as the man to helm a screen adaptation of his wildly successful book “In Cold Blood”, an account of real-life murders that has been called the “original non-fiction novel”. Brooks’s approach certainly didn’t please the studio at first, shooting the film in black-and-white and hiring unknowns for the key roles of the murderers… but it did give him a chance to become a journalist again as he followed in the footsteps of Capote. His personal understanding of the story lends the film credence.

In 1959, paroled ex-convict Richard “Dick” Hickock (Scott Wilson) plans to commit a robbery that is supposed to be “a cinch, the perfect score” after hearing from a cellmate at Kansas State Penitentiary about a wealthy farmer, Herb Clutter, who’s supposed to keep a lot of money locked up in his safe at the farm. Dick figures that he needs help from another former cellmate, Perry Smith (Robert Blake), to commit the crime; they drive across Kansas and finally locate the Clutter farm… where everything goes wrong. A few days later, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation is hired to look into the brutal murders of four people – Herb Clutter, his clinically depressed wife and their teenaged son and daughter. As the KBI start looking for clues, Dick and Perry are desperately trying to reach Mexico…

True to its documentarian style
Brooks never seemed to compromise as he put this movie together. The gamble on hiring unknowns to play Dick and Perry works extraordinary well. Wilson is convincing every step of the way as the cocky, confident Dick who does all the talking whenever the couple need to use the power of persuasion, as in that men’s clothing store scene. Blake is even better as Perry, capturing the complexity of a human being that still comes off as genuinely puzzling. Perry is a childish dreamer who lost his mother at an early age and was abused by both his father and nuns in a Catholic orphanage; he soon learned how to survive in the mean streets as a young hood. He comes across as more of a thinker than Dick… and yet it seems likely that it was he who fell into a rage and did most of the killing at the farm. John Forsythe is also good as one of the cops, often conversing with a reporter invented by Brooks – probably as an instrument to explain the KBI investigation in clearer terms. The movie is true to its documentarian style throughout, even to the final sequences where Perry and Dick face the gallows. Nothing in Brooks’s portrayal is sentimental, not even the flashback depiction of how the Clutter family was murdered. The director, along with cinematographer Conrad L. Hall and editor Peter Zinner, also builds tension (and sympathy for the family) in the first half-hour, especially in the way scenes cleverly segue into other scenes.

Relatives to murder victims will always object to how the story is treated by the media and filmmakers. As a Swede, I remember how The Emigrants director Jan Troell’s plans to make his own In Cold Blood, a story of how a family was slaughtered by two strangers in northern Sweden in 1988, were received. When the final results are as good as that film, and Richard Brooks’s, they offer far more insight into a crime than most newspaper accounts.

In Cold Blood 1967-U.S. 134 min. B/W. Widescreen. Produced, written and directed by Richard Brooks. Book: Truman Capote. Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall. Music: Quincy Jones. Editing: Peter Zinner. Cast: Robert Blake (Perry Smith), Scott Wilson (Richard “Dick” Hickock), John Forsythe (Alvin Dewey), Paul Stewart, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Jeff Corey. 

Trivia: At one point, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were allegedly considered as the murderers. Remade as a 1996 miniseries. The story of how Capote researched the book is portrayed in Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006).

Quote: “It doesn’t make sense. I mean what happened. It had nothing to do with the Clutters. They never hurt me. They just happened to be there. I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman… I thought so right up to the time I cut his throat.” (Blake)

Last word: “Here I was listening to this story [about John Huston berating every guest, including Brooks, at a dinner party he attended] as Capote was rehashing it, and I said, ‘Yes, I remember that evening. What’s that got to do with why you wanted me to do the picture?’ He said, ‘You’re the only guy in the room who didn’t cry.’ I said, ‘That’s why?’ He said, ‘That’s right. You didn’t rage, you didn’t hit him, you didn’t cry. That’s the man I wanted to do this film’.” (Brooks, Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s)

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