|In November of 1959, Kansas - the small town of Holcomb, to be precise, there was committed a sensational murder which saw most members of the Clutter family killed after being tied up. The motive appeared to be robbery, but that did not explain why the subsequent slaughter had been so vicious, and the case obsessed America until the culprits were tracked down and brought in. But one writer, seeking another hit after making the big time with his latest novel Breakfast at Tiffany's, was also fascinated by the crime, and made up his mind to make it the subject of his next book, a kind of factual novel.
That writer was Truman Capote, and his long wait to see what happened to the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, became the basis of two films in the twenty-first century, by which time the celebrity of Capote had somewhat eclipsed the tragedy of the murders. They both took the tack that he was so keen to get and ending for his book that he was instrumental in ensuring the two men were executed, and the further the seemingly endless appeals went on, the further his critical reputation was on the line, and the further that despite befriending the pair of criminals, he really was willing them to die.
Now, that's a solid grounding for a movie, two movies even, but it was not the approach screenwriter and director Richard Brooks took for his film of In Cold Blood. Nevertheless, he did include a Capote surrogate character who observed and narrated, especially in the latter stages of the story, but was played by Paul Stewart, a veteran character actor who bore next to no resemblance to Capote, presumably because the author was such a flamboyant, even outrageous real-life celebrity that an accurate portrayal would have overbalanced the carefully maintained atmosphere of grim drama.
Is that a problem? Certainly, Capote gave leading character actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones a chance to break out their best impersonations when it came producing their biopics of the years of his association with Hickock and Smith, but Brooks was more intent on focusing on the victims, and almost over them, the killers. His was a two-and-a-quarter hour movie and a lot of that was consisting of the minutiae of their criminal psychology; he appeared very taken with the assessment that apart, they would not have perpetrated the crime, but together they created a new, murderous personality that was extremely dangerous.
However, this mulling over what makes killers tick would prove to be the way true crime accounts would play out for decades to come, from The Boston Strangler the following year to the slew of Ted Bundy exploitation efforts that appeared in the next century, and thanks to that concentration on the criminals, the victims were lost or taken for granted as collateral damage, a state of affairs that was morally dubious at best. David Fincher's Zodiac was a refreshing change from this trope, as it posited a mystery that was impossible to get to the bottom of, much as the psychology of the perpetrators of horrendous crimes is difficult to fathom.
Back in 1967, all this was less of a cliche, and when Brooks did depict the murders he did so with relative restraint, though we were still in no doubt of the ghastliness of the situation so the sequence remains disturbing and upsetting to this day. Therefore a combination of the victims' ordinary, all-American lives is contrasted with a set of circumstances the film suggested was equally all-American, the all-American way of violence which started in these men's childhoods, extended to their own atrocity, and continued all the way to their state execution, a cycle of violence that nobody knew how to break, and worse, were simply accepting as the norm: people act abominably, they are punished with extreme force, and so on.
In Cold Blood was a consciously anti-capital punishment statement, given the amount of space it offered to allow us to understand why all this happened, but maybe Brooks should have been harder on Capote. After all, he was accused of encouraging the executions of Hickock and Smith to the point that they were killed to provide an ending for his book rather than seeing any kind of justice done, and while the film performed a corrective to his behaviour (which is nowhere in his book, he doesn't feature himself in it outside of his authorial voice), it didn't point the finger in his direction as it could have. Stewart remains a noble scribe throughout, dutifully and sorrowfully recording humanity at its worst. Indeed, Brooks went into so much microscopic detail that the less charitable may be wondering, why do I need to know so much about these lowlifes? And the film may have the opposite effect as intended, no matter that Scott Wilson and Robert Blake were giving two of the performances of their careers to bring this to life - and death.
[The Criterion Collection release In Cold Blood on Blu-ray with these features:
New 4K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New interview with cinematographer John Bailey about director of photography Conrad Hall's work in the film
New interview with film historian Bobbie O'Steen on the film's editing
New interview with film critic and jazz historian Gary Giddins about Quincy Jones's music for the film
New interview with writer Douglass K. Daniel on director Richard Brooks
Interview with Brooks from a 1988 episode of the French television series Cinéma cinemas
With Love from Truman, a short 1966 documentary featuring novelist Truman Capote, directed by Albert and David Maysles
Two archival NBC interviews with Capote: one following the author on a 1966 visit to Holcomb, Kansas, and the other conducted by Barbara Walters in 1967
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by critic Chris Fujiwara.]