They were cold blooded senseless murders. Truman Capote had read about the 1959 killings of Herbert Clutter and his family which consisted of his wife, Bonnie, and two teenage kids, Nancy and Kenyon. Clutter was a well to do farmer in Holcomb, Kansas. After learning about the murders, Capote decided to travel to Holcomb to write an article about the crime. He took along with him his childhood friend, fellow author Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), working as his assistant. Neither one knew it at the time, but they would spend the next four years or so interviewing, recording, and writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes turning it into a bestselling and stunning piece of investigating reporting. The killers, caught six weeks after the murders, were two life-long losers named, Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Smith.
The two men met in prison, but it was another cellmate of Hickock’s who told him about the rich famer, Clutter, whom he worked for some time before. Clutter, he told Hickock, had a safe in his house where he kept up to ten thousand dollars in cash to conduct his business. With this information, Hickcock came up with a plan. Force Clutter to open the safe, take the money and leave no witnesses. They would then head off to Mexico to start a new life. When he told Perry Smith about the plan, Hickcock said it was fool proof. Only one problem. Clutter did not have a safe in his house, and there was no cash except for a few dollars.
Published in book form in 1966, The New Yorker ran a four part serial in late 1965, it was one of the biggest, bestselling books of the decade. It was Capote’s masterpiece. A peak he would never reach again. One year later, it was turned into a powerfully bleak tale of meaningless death; six lives, the Clutter’s and the two killers, ended for no reason.
Director Richard Brooks and cinematographer Conrad Hall paint a documentary like stark look at the flat Kansas plains in widescreen black and white. Hall’s work is arguably the best of his career. This in a career that consisted of many high points (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Professionals, American Beauty, Road to Perdition). In the more than two hours of photographic art, the most memorable scene, photographically, comes toward the end when Perry Smith (Robert Blake) talks about his miserable childhood. It’s raining outside the prison walls and the rain is hitting against a nearby window next to where Smith standing. As he talks we see the rains reflection running down his face like tears.
Brooks craftily holds off showing the murders until the end of the film. At the time of its release, the film was compared for its violence, at the time, to another ’67 release, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. This was despite Brooks filming all the murders off screen. The impact of the killings is so powerful the audience believes they actually saw the bloodletting.
Brooks used two relative unknowns. Scott Wilson, as Hickock, previously appeared in a minor role in one other film, In the Heat of the Night, released only a couple of months earlier. Robert Blake’s career began in the final years of the Our Gang/Little Rascals days where he played Mickey. Later on he made a series of Little Beaver “B” films. As an adult he appeared in films like Town without Pity, as one of four American soldiers accused of raping a German girl and had a leading role in the low budget gangster film, The Purple Gang. In the 1970’s, Blake would finally become famous with the TV series, Baretta. In the early 2000’s Blake’s reel life and real life collided when he when he was arrested and put on trial for the murder of his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley. As the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey, John Forsythe is proficient if unassuming.
As Roger Ebert points out in a review he wrote on the film, “Brook’s great achievement in the film is to portray Smith and Hickcock as the unexceptional, dim-witted, morally, adrift losers they were.” This was very un-Hollywood. Just that same year, Arthur Penn turned the moronic outlaw lovers, Bonnie and Clyde into glamorous anti-heroes as portrayed by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Two years later, George Roy Hill, with the help of William Goldman’s screenplay, turned outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid into lovable western outlaws as portrayed by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In both these cases, the filmmakers make you side with and sympathize with the bad guys, no matter what hideous crimes they committed. Who wouldn’t want to ride with Butch and Sundance? You certainly don’t feel that way about Dick and Perry. There is nothing glamorous about these two. They were sleazy bottom-feeders. Their plan was half-baked, and from the very beginning Dick’s plan was to leave “no witnesses.”
Both Capote, in his book, and Brooks in the film, framed the story and as an argument against capital punishment. The author and the filmmakers want you to feel sorry for these two losers who childhoods were filled with poverty and violence. Of the two killers, Blake’s Perry comes across as somewhat brighter and the more sensitive of the two, though in real life Perry was known to have periods of violent rage. He is the one who finally realizes, though too late, that what they are doing is ridiculous. Ironically, it’s Perry who actually does the shooting and throat slashing of the Clutter family. Hickcock for all his talk and planning does not have the guts to kill.
Both Scott Wilson and Robert Blake deliver powerfully, unforgettable performances. Blake may have been channeling his own unhappy childhood in painting his portrait of the complex Perry Smith. Perry admits feeling sympathy for the victims and states at one point toward the end of the film that he actually liked Mr. Clutter and thought him, “a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up until the time I cut his throat.”
When I saw this film back in 1967 at the Cinema I in New York City, I found it a stunning and powerful work. More than forty five years later, it remains a stunning and powerful movie than should be considered the masterpiece it deserves to be called.
In Cold Blood – Truman Caputo
In Cold Blood Film Review – Roger Ebert.