Saturday 3 March 2007

In Cold Blood (1967)

Based on the book by Truman Capote, this is a legendary true crime story and one of the few that survived the transition to the big screen. In fact it probably stands above all the rest. We're on the road to Kansas City and we're waiting for something to happen, something that we would know was bad even if the legend hadn't preceded the film because of the wonderfully dark and claustrophobic cinematography by Conrad Hall and the awesomely tense and menacing score by the maestro of mojo, Quincy Jones.

Perry Smith is a nervous, hesitant and obviously troubled traveller who has already broken parole by quitting his job but he's about to make it much worse. He meets up with his friend and fellow parolee Richard Hickock who has a plan: to head 400 miles west to Holcomb and blow the safe at the Clutter place where a friend of Hickock has seen $10,000 in cash. Hickock is lively and hopeful but Smith is out there. He goes into a trance when he looks at himself in the mirror and tells his friend all sorts of bizarre stories. The studio wanted Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to play Smith and Hickock but they were busy doing other minor films like Cool Hand Luke, Hombre, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, so Columbia ended up with Robert Blake and Scott Wilson instead. I can see the far more famous actors in the roles but these two are great not just through their performances but through being less easily recognisable.

The story is told wonderfully. After the intense buildup, we skip over the crime completely, merely hearing about it via John Forsythe's character, who's running the investigation. He explains the evidence clinically and we quickly discover that all four members of the family were left dead: all tied up and shot in cold blood, though Mr Clutter's throat was also cut. The Clutters had no money, not even a safe, so the whole thing got Smith and Hickock nothing but a radio, a pair of binoculars and forty three bucks. So much for listening to cellmate's stories.

After not seeing the murders, we watch the story in an innovative manner. Smith and Hickock head onwards, not remorseful but gradually dealing with what they had done. The police are on the trail and we alternate between the murderers and those chasing them. We also alternate current events with those from the past, especially Perry's, often merging into the same scenes where the past confronts the present. It explains plenty, never judging but merely demonstrating all sides of the picture. There's joy of sorts in the present and pain in the past, never enough to justify but enough to go some way to explain. I'm sure a lot of that came from Capote's book which I really need to read.

Wilson and especially Blake are simply superb, never showboating but really letting us into the depth behind these characters. The cops are deliberately far more two dimensional, almost Terminator like in their persistence of pursuit, single track minded all the way and without any of the personality you'd expect from cops in a show like, say, CSI that brought Wilson back to Las Vegas where his character here was finally arrested for driving a hot car. He was a rich casino owner with serious mob connections in that show, while for Blake's part, he went on to play on the other side of the law: Detective Tony Baretta on TV and Big John Wintergreen in the awesome Electra Glide in Blue.

When the crime comes, it's completely unlike any similar crime in a movie: it's beautifully and cinematically shot, a masterpiece of direction, yet it's also completely unsensational. It's at once brutal, pathetic, powerful, yet never sensational. It's superb and different, just as the way this story is told is always completely different. We see it differently to how we usually see it. There's little more of the trial here than there is in 12 Angry Men, but we see all we need to see, and it's easy to wish that most of the law shows and films we get nowadays showed us just as little. Their life in prison is again completely different from what we're used to seeing, but again it shows us exactly what we should see. All the way to the inevitable and yet amazingly sudden end, it's a piece of genius in exactly the same way that the original crime of killing the Clutters wasn't.

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