Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Thirty-Two

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#32 — In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967)
The Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas were murdered in their farmhouse home in November, 1959. Author Truman Capote, with his childhood friend Harper Lee in tow, journey to the Midwestern state to write about the crime. Following extensive reporting, including interviews with the two men arrested for the murders, Capote produced a series of articles for The New Yorker that were subsequently pulled together to become the book In Cold Blood, first published in 1966. It was enough of a sensation that a film version was ready by the following year, written and directed by Richard Brooks, whose previous cinematic experiences with religious hucksterism, noirish crime films and Tennessee Williams adaptations made him uniquely equipped to demonstrate how a single violent assault could offer up a broader commentary on pervasive American rot.

In a quest for authenticity, Brooks chose to shoot in locations directly connected to the true crime story: the courtroom where the assailants were tried, the jail where they were imprisoned, even the crime scene itself. Perhaps in part because of this, the film has a resolutely clamped down style that refutes all conventions of Hollywood. That isn’t to imply it isn’t cinematic. Quite the opposite is true: images are framed with great care, and the black-and-white cinematography of the great Conrad L. Hall gives the whole thing a striking beauty, even when the film is at its bleakest. Instead, Brooks emphasizes the plainness of these lives, making it more chilling when the planned robbery goes wrong and rapidly escalates to something far more dire. The harshest acts can happen in an instant, the decision to end someone’s very existence taking no time at all, considering the extreme gravity of the choice. Consequences don’t hang over the perpetrators. They are as distant as the clouds.

As played by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson, the murderers Perry and Dick are starkly human, achingly troubled as much as they themselves are clearly capable of causing horrible calamity for others. It is fallibility rather than lurking evil that drives them to their heinous acts, which is especially key when Brooks turns his attention to the punishment for their crimes. Dick and Perry were sentenced to death, and In Cold Blood follows them all the way to the gallows, ticking out the trip there with the same excruciating patience afforded the murder of the Clutters. Punishment or not, Brooks seems to be making the point about the parallels between what was done by two brutal men and what was handed down by the apparatus of the state justice system. Maybe the title of the film can apply to both sets of actions, and death becomes a cycle rather than a tragedy. It’s to the credit of Brooks that his unflinching depiction of Perry and Dick’s murderous actions doesn’t make their own end any less wrenching. Where the social strictures have trained everyone to believe in the hangman’s noose as the ripcord to catharsis, Brooks suggests–subtly and without pointed commentary–that is just one more example of man’s inhumanity to man.

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