Written and directed by Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry), In Cold Blood is one of the most creditable true-crime films ever made. Truman Capote's bestseller provided the source, but Brooks insisted on more authenticity than a mere faithful script could provide. The film was shot in as many of the actual locations as possible, including the Clutter house--where Perry Smith and Dick Hickock committed their infamous murders--the real-life courtroom (populated with six of the original jurors), and the gallows at the Kansas State Penitentiary, where Smith and Hickock would pay the ultimate price.
Remembered in no small part for its phenomenal black-and-white photography by Conrad Hall and an appropriately off-kilter score by Quincy Jones, In Cold Blood also benefits from an ensemble of affectingly restrained performers. The murderous duo at the film's center offers a study in contrasts: the slick, unbothered Dick (Scott Wilson) goads on the nervous Perry (Robert Blake), a child of trauma. "There's got to be something wrong with us to do what we did," Perry worries, and Blake's subesequent casting as David Lynch's Mystery Man in Lost Highway and as a real-life murder suspect have only increased the mystique of Blake's grounded performance here. As in the Leopold and Loeb case, the co-dependence of the killers takes on a homoerotic subtext, despite Dick's bedding of a woman on the road: Perry complements Dick's smile, while Dick calls Perry "baby" and "honey" and "sugar." Perry also slips into a daydream reverie of nightclub singing that seems at odds with his criminal recidivism. Perry and Dick are destined to remain together till the bitter end:
Dick: I'm the only friend you got now. Friend to the end, for better or worse.
Perry: Till death do us part, huh?
Brooks' meticulously constructed approach to plot makes elegant use of expository flashback and brilliantly conceived rhyming edits. As lead investigator Alvin Dewey, John Forsythe makes a grim, dogged counterpart to the fugitives' attempted escape; he also delivers an incisive critique of how newspapers cover the homicide beat. Brooks unfortunately weeds out Capote's foppishness as an irrelevant truth, which helps to make the minor character of journalist Jensen (Paul Stewart)--also briefly the narrator--nothing more than a competent blank. The side-by-side 21st century films Capote and Infamous would correct this oversight, the former honorably replicating In Cold Blood's stark, horrific execution scene.
In Cold Blood's most transcendent moments come in the film's last half hour, just before the long-withheld depiction of the killing, and just before the execution of Perry. In a moment of simultaneous discovery for Perry and the audience, Perry cracks. "We're ridiculous," he laughs, bitterly. "This is stupid." True-crime drama gives way to theater of the absurd:
Dick: What are you sore about? We got no beef. It's us against them.
Perry: This is between us. It's got nothing to do with them.
Actually, as Brooks has it, it's as much between Perry and his abusive father, the psychodrama of the past dovetailing with the psychodrama of the present. In a later monologue, Perry recounts a pivotal confrontation with his father; standing before a rain-spattered window, Perry appears to have tears streaming down his face, but they are only shadows. (This triumphant moment of cinematography owes a lucky accident, as explained by Conrad Hall in the 1992 documentary Visions of Light: a fan used to cool the hot set blew the "rainwater" against the window.)
The Blu-ray debut of In Cold Blood, from Sony, shares real estate with the next-gen debut of Capote, each film being the ultimate bonus feature for the other. Both films look great, though the gorgeous black-and-white transfer of In Cold Blood is revelatory. It's a crisp and surprisingly clean picture, with perfect contrast and extraordinary detail. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround tracks for both films can be considered definitive.
Capote gets a full special edition, but In Cold Blood must speak for itself. It's a shame Scott Wilson wasn't corraled to do an interview or commentary, but having the film in this kind of great shape, and paired with Capote, is a gift horse not to be looked in the mouth.
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