Dir: Richard Brooks | Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Tex Smith, Paul Stewart, Jeff Corey, Gerald S O’Loughlin | US Crime Thriller, 130′
Truman Capote’s celebrated reporting of a Kansas murder case, In Cold Blood, is the basis for Richard Brooks’s disturbing docudrama. The film opens as a Greyhound bus roars into the darkness of a desolate prairie night, bound for Kansas City. Black silhouetted figures stand out, one is a man with a guitar. A girl passenger sees a boot with the famous catspaw soles (‘catspaws won’t slip’), and this is the clue that will eventually lead to the murderer – and the Capote’s nemesis.
Formally ambitious yet elegantly restrained the film crisply evokes the small-town Sixties Kansas in Conrad Hall’s stylish black and white visuals with a classy score by Quincy Jones. New Yorker Capote had spent over six months getting to know the Kansas locals for his ‘non-fiction novel’, and one local in particular would be his unravelling. He trusted Brooks to transfer his own ideas to the screen, and they were both sold on black and white, Hall creating a gritty true crime feel, and some stunning Wild West style panoramas, Brooks carrying the authenticity through by filming in the town and the exact house where the murders actually happened, but Capote became mesmerised by one of the perpetrators, Perry Smith.
The events of the case grippingly unfold in a chronological narrative recounting how four members of the ‘God-fearing’ Clutter family were slaughtered in cold blood one night in 1959 by two two ex-convicts looking for cash during a random burglary in the remote rural property. They stole a radio and a few dollars and left few clues as to their identity, but Brooks shows how Kansas Police (lead by a superb John Forsythe) embark on a lengthy and painstaking investigation eventually catching and convicting the killers and bringing them to justice in 1965.
Robert Blake (Perry Smith) and Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock) are utterly convincing as the ruthless killers. And although we already know that they committed the murders from the early scenes Brooks generates a palpable tension while he fleshes out the investigation and we get a chance to fathom the broken minds of the perpetrators.
At the end of the day, who can really understand why two people only intending to rob the Clutters, and who had not committed murder before, suddenly decided to sadistically murder four innocent people on a quiet night in 1959? And what did the modest Clutters do provoke such vicious violence?
Richard Brooks’s fractured narrative flips nervously back and forth brilliantly evoking both the frenzied minds of the killers and the fervent need of detectives to nail and endite their suspects. Conrad Hall’s noirish visuals re-visit the rain-soaked scene of the crime, the remote locations and the fugitives’ brief escape to Mexico and their chance arrest in Las Vegas, while allowing brief glimpses of the genesis of their disfunctional family stories.
Brooks skilfully avoids showing bloodshed, violence or macabre crime scenes, allowing the terror to haunt our minds rather than the cinema screen. The mercilessness of the intruders and the abject fear and vulnerability of Clutters in their final moments is more evocative than any blood-soaked bedroom scene. By the time we reach the trial and imprisonment, we are glad to be done with these sordid criminals, although Brooks a scintilla of sympathy for Perry Smith who seems to have been led on. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson give chilling and resonant portrayals in the leading roles. MT
ON DVD | REMASTERED COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS FILMS.