In Cold Blood Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 2 release of In Cold Blood, Richard Brooks’s excellent 1967 film of Truman Capote’s book about a real-life multiple murder and its aftermath. Columbia’s DVD, which was released on 15 September, has an excellent picture and good sound but minimal extras.

Although In Cold Blood is based faithfully on a true story, readers should be aware that this review contains plot spoilers.

On 14 November 1959, in the small village of Holcomb, Kansas, wealthy farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife Bonnie and their teenage son and daughter Nancy and Kenyon were shot and killed in their home. The two young men who committed the crime were Dick Hickock (played by Scott Wilson) and Perry Smith (Robert Blake).

Truman Capote’s book about the crime and its aftermath, In Cold Blood, was first published in 1966, a year after Hickock and Smith were hanged. Although everything in the book came from the record or from Capote’s own observation, he wrote the story as a novel. Capote pioneered the “non-fiction novel” with this book, other well-known examples being Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, about the Chicago riots of 1968 and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. It has some claim to be Capote’s finest work, though it’s in a much darker register than his best-known fiction such as the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Richard Brooks’s screenplay is faithful to the structure of the book (which even involves a flashback inside a flashback), though simplifies it considerably. This is no doubt inevitable to fit a 330-page book into two and a quarter hours of screen time. For the first half-hour, Brooks cuts between the Clutter family going about their lives and Dick and Perry meeting up. A fellow prisoner who had worked at the Clutters’ farm had told Dick that this would be an easy job of robbery with big money there for the taking. As it happened, it didn’t work out that way. Mr Clutter didn’t have a safe on the premises (he did all his transactions by cheque and carried very little cash on his person). Dick and Perry got away with a portable radio and about forty dollars. Four gunshots…that eventually ended six lives. More than anything else, In Cold Blood leaves you with a sense of wasted lives, the killers’ as well as their victims’, and that’s something the gallows won’t put right. It’s a compelling story, helped no end by fine performances from Wilson and Blake. As in the book, we don’t see the murder as it happens: it’s played as a flashback as Perry testifies.

Before he became a screenwriter and then a writer/director, Brooks began his career as a reporter. His journalistic background shows in the documentary-like approach he takes, often using the real locations where certain incidents took place. Many of the court reporters and the jurors you see on screen are playing themselves. If anything his depiction of the crime is mercifully restrained, though no doubt censorship of the day had something to do with that. The relationship between Dick and Perry has noticeably homoerotic overtones (though both men were actually straight), which are also in the book. A minor point: this was the first US major studio film to include the word “shit” in its dialogue.

In Cold Blood was shot in black and white Scope. This wasn’t the original intention. By 1967, colour television had arrived in the US, and the studios were putting pressure on filmmakers not to use black and white. Brooks was able to get his way with monochrome, but he and DP Conrad Hall weren’t able to shoot the film in 1.85:1 with a hard-matte in camera. This would have produced black bars on all prints, ensuring that projectionists would have to respect their compositions. As a compromise, Hall suggested shooting in 2.35:1 with anamorphic lenses. Again, the projectionist couldn’t destroy the composition – not without a frameline appearing on screen. As Hall pointed out (see, amongst others, his interview in Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato’s book Masters of Light) shooting in Scope had a strange effect. The monochrome photography and the real locations pulled the film in the direction of documentary, but the widescreen format – not to mention Quincy Jones’s rather obtrusive jazz score – moved it more in the direction of drama. Hall was nominated for his work, against four colour pictures (this was the year that the Academy had abandoned separate categories for colour and black and white cinematography, production design and costume design). Rightly so: Hall’s work here is masterly, particularly in the first half hour and in the murder scene which are particularly dark. If, like me, you consider black and white cinematography a lost art form, you can’t avoid a sad sense that this film represents the end of an era. In Cold Blood was one of nine black and white features that the major studios released in the USA in 1967. The following year there were none, and a tradition was broken. Of course there have been monochrome features since, but they have been exceptions to the colour norm. DPs with much experience in black and white have grown old and died, many laboratories can’t process it any more – which is why quite a few recent monochrome features have actually been shot on colour stock, an acceptable compromise but finally not the same thing.

Good news: Columbia have obviously kept this film in good condition, because their DVD has an excellent transfer: strong blacks, clean whites and every shade of grey in between. There’s no artefacting to be seen and only a few specks here and there. The transfer is in the correct 2.35:1 ratio and anamorphically enhanced.

As with almost any other film from 1967, In Cold Blood was originally released with a mono soundtrack. On this DVD it’s been remixed into Dolby Digital 3.0. This means in effect that dialogue and effects come through the centre channel, with Jones’s score using the left and right. Playing this in Dolby Prologic produces much the same effect, with the score coming rather more faintly from the surrounds as well as the front, with one or two directional sound effects. It’s hard to see why they bothered: this film sounds fine in the original mono, which is the format the four dubbed soundtracks are in.

There are a range of subtitle options and twenty-eight chapter stops. The disc is encoded for Regions 2, 4 and 5.

The main extra is the theatrical trailer, which is in anamorphic 1.85:1 and runs 2:46. As this film dealt with relatively recent events, it gets the sort of trailer which relies heavily on the film’s authenticity, including comparison shots of the actors with those of the real people they are playing. There are also trailers for other Columbia TriStar releases, as follows: Devil in a Blue Dress (2:26), The Devil’s Own (2:20), In a Lonely Place (2:18) and Mortal Thoughts (1:48). The first two are in Dolby Surround, the second two mono. The Devil’s Own is non-anamorphic 1.85:1, the others full-frame. The trilers have optional subtitles in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Dutch but not English.

As this is really just a back-catalogue release, you can’t really expect more in the way of extras. A complicating factor is that Capote, Brooks and Hall are all dead, and Blake as I write this (September 2003) is incarcerated, so a commentary might have been difficult to arrange. Some background detail on Capote and the real-life crime would have been welcome.

In Cold Blood is one of those films that was generally admired on its release but has tended to slip into obscurity. This is partly because Brooks, who died in 1992, is out of fashion as a director, with a reputation for worthiness. That shouldn’t take away from the fact that he made some excellent films, of which this is certainly one. For some years it wasn’t easy to see this in the UK until a cinema reissue in the 1990s (I first saw it in 16mm Scope in 1986). It’s a film well worth discovering, so for that reason this DVD is welcome, despite the lack of extras.


Updated: Sep 17, 2003

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