In November 1959 there occurred a mass murder which shocked the nation, if not the world, as the Clutter family of rural Kansas were massacred in their own home one night. A countrywide manhunt was organised, but let us go back to the beginning of the story, where the two murderers, Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) met shortly after the former was released from prison. They had big plans to track down a fortune in treasure in a shipwreck off the coast of Mexico, which according to Perry who had the map was theirs for the taking, but Dick had ideas about getting money with less effort closer to home. So it was that they were in Kansas and he became convinced the Clutter home held a safe full of thousands of dollars...
In Cold Blood is still one of the most important books on crime ever written, a vivid narrative by Truman Capote which attempted not only to bring to life the victims on the page, but examine the psychology of the killers as well in a particularly influential fashion. It was as much a "this could happen to you" warning about the reader identifying with the deceased as it was a warning that the wrong set of choices, the bad luck of the wrong background and getting influenced by the wrong sort of person could land you into a dire situation that saw you committing a crime yourself - possibly the worst crime of all. But Capote was not out to exclusively chill the blood, and his meticulous research was testament to that.
When director Richard Brooks came to adapt the book for the big screen, he made sure to keep as close to the page as possible, and though Capote admitted he had embellished his story to an extent to make it more literary, as his readership would have expected, Brooks stuck to the facts wherever possible so that the film was faithful to both the text and the actual people involved. At the time this was considered the most violent film to ever have emerged from Hollywood, though shortly after that device was going to be yet more extreme as censorship loosened, largely thanks to works such as this, and now it looks like the sort of reconstruction you would see on television. Or it would except for one aspect: cinematographer Conrad Hall's stunning, black and white widescreen compositions.
This was one of the best, if not the best, looking true crime yarns ever to grace the screen, and if there are parts where the narrative unavoidably meanders during the killers' wandering across America in the aftermath of their crime, the compensation is just how excellent in appearance Brooks and Hall crafted their tale - Quincy Jones' superb jazz score was another masterful scene setter. In the meantime, Brooks set about capturing the weird sympathy Capote had for Perry especially, not perhaps so weird when you knew he had gotten to know him very well as he sat on Death Row, but it wasn't what most viewers, well aware of the acts he had committed, would be sharing feelings about. That was a mark of how significant the book and the movie were, that we should find ourselves forced to confront our opinions about these two men.
What was never in doubt was the tragedy of what befell the Clutters, though here they are given less time to flesh out their personalities and relationships than in the source, which weighed the interest in favour of the murderers. Both Blake and Wilson rarely got roles as good as this again, and as if they were well aware of this they grabbed their opportunities with both hands, so you can sense the relish both actors had for proving themselves in a high profile production. Arguably Blake had the best part, as the crippled thanks to a motorcycle accident Perry, a man whose father has twisted his mind into an inferiority which has left him a hopeless dreamer, a trait that in other stories would be sentimental and even cute, but here was sick, demeaning and self-destructive. The murders were held back to the last act of the film, building up the tension and again confronting us with the abyss of horror the family must have faced that night, only now we see the culprits through the eyes of understanding. If In Cold Blood was slightly artificial and lacked Capote's heartbreaking final line, it remained resonant.