Truman Capote's best seller, a breakthrough narrative account of real-life crime and punishment, became an equally chilling film in the hands of writer-director Richard Brooks. Cast for their unsettling resemblances to the killers they play, Robert Blake and Scott Wilson give authentic, unshowy performances as Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who in 1959 murdered a family of four in Kansas during a botched robbery. Brooks brings a detached, documentary-like starkness to this uncompromising view of an American tragedy and its aftermath; at the same time, stylistically In Cold Blood is a filmmaking master class, with clinically precise editing, chiaroscuro black-and-white cinematography by the great Conrad L. Hall, and a menacing jazz score by Quincy Jones.
Based on Truman Capote's book of the same name, which was published just a few years before this movie's release, 'In True Blood' tells the harrowing true story of the murders of a Kansas family by a pair of ex-cons. The film, directed by Richard Brooks (who also wrote the screenplay adapted from Capote's 'nonficton novel'), is masterful in the way it presents its story – using then-unknown actors for the two leads, shooting on location (including inside the actual house where the murders took place), and presenting it all in a black and white film noir style that was not exactly in vogue for the colorful world of entertainment in the late 1960s.
Although the studio (Columbia Pictures) wanted Brooks to use actors Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in the leads, the director insisted no one in the audience would feel threatened or terrified watching two of the world's most popular actors in the story and instead cast young up and comers Robert Blake and Scott Wilson. Blake plays Perry Smith, the more 'innocent' (if that's a fair term to use) and child-like of the two felons, who has some daddy issues to deal with – and ones that just might explain why he participated in the horrific crimes. Wilson is Dick Hickock, the harder-edged of the two men, with an equally foul mouth to go along with his temperament (well, 'foul' by 1967 standards to be sure). On the evening of November 14, 1959, the two men broke into the home of Herbert Clutter, killing him, his wife, and his son and daughter and leaving with a grand total of about $40. What happened and why did they do it? The movie, like the book that proceeded it, attempts to address those questions.
Although he's given a less flashy role than the two murderers, John Forsythe co-stars as Alvin Dewey, the chief investigator of the case and the man who would help bring Smith and Hickock to justice. His part is very much in the tradition of film noir detectives of the past, and there's a lot of Humphrey Bogart in Forsythe's performance – the strong and silent type, and a man devoted to his duty. A reporter named Bill Jensen (Paul Stewart) also plays a key role as the movie's voice of conscious. He's one of the few characters in the film not to have a real-life counterpart, although he actually does – most believe he's an on-screen version of Capote himself, but his dialogue questioning the validity of capital punishment probably reflects Richard Brooks' view of the subject more than it does Capote's.
The black and white film choice here by Brooks makes the movie powerful in a way it never could be had it been shot in color. As we learn in the supplemental materials on this release, the studio really wanted the director to shoot in color, as most TV stations at that point refused to air black and white films once they came to television. However, Brooks insisted that his movie was about fear and that he only saw fear in black and white, hence his insistence on shooting it that way. The way Brooks and cinematographer Conrad Hall play with lighting and shadows in the movie is remarkable. The murders themselves, for example, are only lit by the flashlights that the two felons are carrying with them. There's another well-designed scene (which just happened by chance, if one is to believe Hall's past comments on shooting the film) in which Perry Smith – now on death row for his crimes – stands by a window in his cell and laments his life choices. The rain outside that is against the window reflects off of him, giving the illusion of tears pouring down his face. It's a beautifully composed shot.
One of the things that 'In Cold Blood' does best, however, is how it manages to make its two murderous leads relatable without ever making their deeds acceptable. Viewers know at the end of the movie that both Smith and Hickock deserve to die, but that doesn't prevent the audience from still asking themselves if they should be killed. As the character of Jensen puts it on the day of their execution, "Four innocent and two guilty people were murdered."
'In Cold Blood' is a remarkable piece of moviemaking, and a Blu-ray release that deserves a spot on the shelf of any film buff. It's not always easy to watch, but the questions it presents to its audience are just as relevant today as they were when this film was released, and sadly the answers to those questions may be no clearer today than they were back in 1967.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'In Cold Blood' arrives on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection (Spine #781) in a clear Scanavo keepcase, which houses the 50GB Blu-ray along with a five-page fold out that features an essay on the movie by Chris Fujiwara. Just of note: this is a nice, proper fold-out, as opposed to the 'fold-overs' that Criterion has been putting in some of their titles that open up to mini-poster size (and which I think most of us would agree aren't very appealing). As is standard with Criterion releases, there are no front-loaded trailers on the disc, whose main menu is just the name of the movie in large wine-colored letters with selections on the left side of the screen (which, like all Criterion menus, open up – where applicable – for further choices).
The Blu-ray in this release is Region A locked.
'In Cold Blood' arrives on Blu-ray with a brand-new transfer, which was done in 4k (although obviously it's only presented in 1080p here). The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35.1. Those who owned the 2010 Sony Blu-ray release of the movie should be aware that this is a brand-new transfer of the film. I did not own the prior Blu-ray, but from what I can tell from screenshots available online (not the best judge of quality, granted), this version appears to be both lighter looking and more natural in presentation.
The transfer here is very nicely done, indeed. Sharpness and detail are stunning, yet the film retains its grain and doesn't suffer from any evident digital manipulation like edge enhancement or excessive DNR use that would cause clarity to be lost. What's more, I couldn't find a hint of dirt or debris on the print, which is equally impressive. Perhaps most importantly for this often-dark black and white film, black levels are solid throughout, with no problems with crush or noise creeping into such scenes.
Overall, this is a great-looking release, giving this classic movie the best home video presentation it has gotten to date.
The only audio option here is a 5.1 DTS-HD lossless track, which primarily serves to enhance Quincy Jones' jazz score, as the dialogue in the movie is all up-front. It's a shame that Criterion didn't feel the need to provide a lossless mono track that would more properly give viewers something close to the original theatrical sound, but I have no serious complaints about this lossless track, other than the fact that Jones' score sometimes (particularly in the opening minutes of the movie) comes over as a little more aggressive than it was probably intended to be.
With the above in mind, there are no obvious or apparent glitches in the track I noticed, other than the fact that the musical score seems mixed a little louder than it should be. There are not many moments (although there are a few) where the music plays over dialogue, so this doesn't present too big of an issue when enjoying the film.
'In Cold Blood' remains a powerful film just not because it's an unglamorous re-creation of a horrible event, but because it raises questions about crime, punishment, and what drives men to murder that are still being asked in today's society. This Criterion release provides a great new transfer of the movie along with some supplemental extras that really add to one's understanding of the people who helped bring this film to the screen. This one's highly recommended.