‘So who killed the Clutters?’

Crime films (and more recently television series) that reflect on the actualities of a case without being brutally graphic or discretely withdrawn seem to be a rarity these days, but this thoroughly engaging film enhances the realism of its situation with a structure that is totally cinematic in depiction. True life drama for those who are enamoured with that genre, In Cold Blood also offers a real treat for cinephiles with its brilliant construction of a story where the lead protagonists enacted the most horrific crime that shocked the nation. Committed, as the title suggests, in cold blood. Based upon the novel by Truman Capote, which deconstructed the true life case, the film is adapted and directed by Robert Brooks.

‘Why did you kill him?’

‘No special reason, just for the Hell of it’

Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) are ex-cons, fresh out of jail and ready to ditch parole, grab a large bundle of money and drive away to where they can find an easy life away from the police. They have different outlooks, skills and criminal records; Perry likes his guitar, aspirins and tries to forget his alcoholic mother’s death and the beatings for adulterous incidents from his rodeo father (though he feels the need to visit him) whilst Dick is a smooth scam merchant with a distinctly nasty streak, a con artist skilled in swindles and shoplifting. They drive their stolen car to a remote and prosperous looking farm in Kansas with nefarious intent. The following day the police and press are shocked by the atrocities discovered at the farm. The Clutter family are found slaughtered inside the house, a mere $40 missing from their home, not the thousands of dollars that Dick had hoped for. The pair head to Mexico while the media broadcasts the horrific details of the case. But the law is onto them. Time passes and the criminals decide to return to the US but at what cost to them and their future? Will it be luxury in Vegas or the hangman’s noose?

In Cold Blood is true crime recreation at its most compelling, carefully structured and realistically portrayed, perhaps even more so than the highly engaging The Boston Strangler (1968). The difference here is that whilst the protagonists are known criminals and indeed continue to offend in a variety of ways throughout the narrative, their savagery here is not one of compulsion but of selfishness, barbarity and sheer cold blooded gruesome behaviour. (Perry stops at Dick’s suggested molestation of the daughter but this is a brief moment of compassionate thought in the otherwise emotionless butchery.) The revelation that their financial gains are negligible is cursory to the crime. But this is not just a film about the two protagonists, it also discusses the procedures surrounding the investigation of the atrocities, coupled with the constant media reminders on TV, radio and newspapers about the authorities’ search for the suspects. The details in police procedure following the discovery of the corpses at the farmhouse are intrinsic to the film’s depiction of the case’s twists and turns. The wounds on the bodies, the ropes, the clearly defined footprints in the blood of the victims are there to aid the furtherance of police suspicions (and hence the plot) but also the length of time in finding and capturing the perpetrators of the barbaric slaughter of the family are portrayed with a degree of realism. Meanwhile Perry and Dick (who mocks his partner by calling him ‘honey’) enjoy each other’s company and argue in equal measure, like a married couple on the verge of divorce while escaping the law. There are moments of grim humour in proceedings but these too are naturalistic – such as their hitching troubles when they pick up a boy and an old man and collect empty coke bottles along the highway in order to get cash for petrol at 3₵ a bottle. No humour can be found in the film’s inevitable conclusion, a serious and emotionally charged sequence that is highly reminiscent of the later A Short Film About Killing (1988).

Richard Brooks’ film takes the realism of the true crime drama and makes sure that all the elements are specified in great detail but carefully avoids a linear narrative so that story is revealed to the viewer sometimes at the same time as it is being unfolded by the authorities. This is enhanced by astonishing use of sound and visual editing which links scenes seamlessly and has the effect of not only indicating jumps in time but also showing thematic relationships between place and situation, people and purpose.

True crime drama at its most cinematic and compelling (at times shockingly so, but never in a gratuitous manner) In Cold Blood is beautifully written, constructed, filmed, acted and edited. Essential viewing.