In Cold Blood (1967) *****

Unfairly overlooked in favor of the Coppola/Scorsese grandiose perspective on gangsters, this changed the shape of the crime picture as much as the best-selling book altered the way readers regarded murderers. Neither whodunit, whydunit nor film noir, nonetheless it invites us into the world of the senseless crime, providing an extremely human portrayal of two men if not natural born killers then their pitiful lives always going to lead them in the wrong direction.

Although Perry Smith (Robert Blake) is a fantasist, dreaming of becoming a singing star in Las Vegas, determined to find the lost treasure of Cortez, and convinced a giant bird protected him from vicious nuns in an orphanage, his life did already verge on the fantastical. His mother, a Cherokee, was a star rodeo performer, his father a gold prospector in Alaska, but the mother, an alcoholic, choked to death on her own vomit and the father (Charles McGraw), a hobo in all but name, is astonished that the child he brought up, so he believes, to recognise right from wrong, would stoop to crime. As a child Perry and siblings watched his mother have sex with clients and his father viciously beat her with a belt. Perry is addicted to aspirin to minimize pain from a leg injury, and you can’t help but feel sorry for this otherwise fit young man massaging the massive disfiguring scar, the result of a motorbike accident.

Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) is a very charming cocky personable con man, leaving a trail of bad checks behind him as he masquerades as a best man who has come out without enough cash to buy a wedding outfit for his buddy and, with his convincing patter, hoodwinking store clerks not just into accepting a check for the goods, later to be sold, but also cashing a personal check. His father, too, is stunned to hear his son had criminal tendencies.

Fatherhood is represented as a holy grail. Hickock enjoyed being a parent until he was caught with another girl and had to do “the decent thing” i.e. abandon existing wife and child. The parents of both boys have wonderful, emotion-filled, memories of loving and being loved by their children.

From another prisoner, Hickock has been told of the “perfect score,” a rich farmer called Clutter in Kansas with $10,000 in his safe. The plan, to which Smith has only momentary objection, is to leave no witnesses. Even muttered in grandiose manner, this phrase surely, in anybody’s mind, conjures up slaughter, Smith’s only saving grace that he prevents Hickock raping the daughter Nancy (Benda C. Currin). Their haul amounting to $43 and a radio, you could imagine the thieves wiping out the family in a fit of fury. But that’s not the case, it’s just cold-blooded thinking, an element of leaving no trace behind.

And that’s just what they do, committing an almost perfect crime, no fingerprints, just the mark of the sole of a shoe imprinted in blood. There’s a red herring – old man Clutter had just signed off on an insurance policy worth $80,000. But detective Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe) has to solve the crime the old-fashioned way, with inter-state cooperation and months (years in reality) of footslogging. Dewey could have been straight out of film noir with his nippy one-liners and epigrams.

Other than Alfred Hitchcock, it was unusual for a reissue double bill to comprise
two films by the same director.

Unlike the novel which concentrated as much on the aftermath among the shocked townspeople, the film focuses on the manhunt and Dewey’s deft way with newspapermen and colleagues. The four murders occur off-camera, but by that point we already know the outcome. There’s a virtue-signalling coda that shows the inhumane conditions in which murders were kept on Death Row, but that is countered by a marvellous speech by Dewey on the inequities of being a cop: hounded by media and public for letting someone get away with heinous crime, generally getting a tough time over police methods, lambasted after catching them for not doing it quickly enough, and then having to stand by while media and public launch an outcry to prevent the killers being executed.

All shade, the documentary style achieves the contradiction of appearing sparingly told yet with a wealth of character detail (location and time are ignored) and none of the grandeur and faux community spirit invested in gangsterdom by the likes of Coppola and Scorsese. Smith and Hickock would never pass the entry test for the Mafia given that at least required discipline and the ability to follow orders. Minus the killing spree, these characters might have survived a little longer in the underclass before ending up inside again.

All three principals are brilliant in the understated manner demanded. Robert Blake (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) is the pick, tormented by future dreams and past nightmares, but Scott Wilson (In the Heat of the Night, 1967) has the stand-out scene, gulling store salesmen with his finely worked con, and there is a sense of the big brother in the way he looks after his friend. This might well be the best work by John Forsythe (Topaz, 1969).

And it certainly is one of the finest movies made by writer-director Richard Brooks (The Professionals, 1966) who handles a very difficult subject with at times such delicacy it is almost a complete departure in style.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

5 thoughts on “In Cold Blood (1967) *****”

  1. Agree about the importance of this film in cinema history; overlooked now.

    Want to question this…

    ‘His mother, a Cherokee, was a star rodeo performer, his father a gold prospector in Alaska, but the mother, an alcoholic, choked to death on their own vomit…’

    Their own vomit? I shudder to think….

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I remember the book being on top of our piano, where my mom kept all of her book club purchases in the sixties and seventies. It seemed like every home in the states had a copy at the and book’s presence in American pop culture cannot be understated. It was eventually unseated by “In Cold Blood” which my mother did not read but seemingly every girl in my high school did at the time.

    I think the film is a solid artifact of its time and holds up well although Robert Blake’s shoddy behavior on innumerable guest appearances on “The Tonight Show” in the seventies during and after “Baretta”-not only killed his career but helped tarnish the reputation of both this film and his performance here long before his own eventual murder trial.

    Nice review, as always. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Blake proved a liability in the end. Capote, too, probably. The book is even better than the film since it concentrates a lot more on the impact of the crime. It must’ve made a hell of an impact when it first appeared.

      Like

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