In Cold Blood
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On November 15, 1959 at 2 a.m. in the morning, two ex-convicts, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, broke into the Holcomb, Kansas home of Herbert Clutter hoping to find $10,000 in his safe. They had foolishly believed a story about his wealth from one of his former employees and now they knew the truth - there was no safe. But instead of leaving, the criminals roused the family of four from their beds, bound and gagged them, and then brutally murdered them before fleeing to Mexico with a pathetic $43 between them. Novelist Truman Capote happened to catch a news item about the murders in the paper and upon investigating further decided it would make a great subject for a book. When his "non-fiction" novel, In Cold Blood, appeared in 1966, it became a publishing sensation and made Capote both a wealthy man and an international celebrity. It was inevitable that Hollywood would make a movie of the book, but critics and audiences alike were quite unprepared for the film version that writer/director Richard Brooks delivered.
While Capote maintained a cold objectivity in his book, Brooks opted for a starkly realistic approach to the material. In his version of In Cold Blood (1967), the audience often views the world through the perspective of the killers. While this approach was criticized by fans of the book that said the film humanized the murderers while turning the innocent victims into one-dimensional caricatures, it was undeniably effective in dramatic terms, especially in the final execution sequence. In a New York Times article by William Cotter Murray, Brooks was quoted as saying, "I see the movie as a kind of Greek tragedy, American style. Everyone knows the ending. It's the treatment that matters. I'm not interested in Alfred Hitchcock stuff...I'm interested in the social aspect of this drama...If I thought this movie didn't have relevance to a general social problem, I wouldn't be making it....This isn't a tragedy of Fate. It's the tragedy of a house. Two houses. The poor farmer shack Hickock came from, and the Clutter's $40,000 farmhouse."
Brooks' attention to detail was practically obsessive on the set of In Cold Blood. He did extensive research at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas on the subject of detecting and treating mentally ill and potentially homicidal prisoners. He insisted on and received permission to shoot on location in the actual Clutter home and in the actual courtroom where the murderers were convicted. Brooks even cast some of the Clutters' neighbors as extras, used seven of the original jurors for the courtroom scenes, brought Nancy Clutter's horse Babe out of retirement for a scene, and even hired the same hangman who had executed Smith and Hickock. And Brooks was no less meticulous in instructing his cast. For instance, he insisted that John Forsythe meet agent Al Dewey, the man he was portraying on film, in order to closely study his mannerisms and personality. Brooks also had his share of battles with the front office at Columbia Pictures who wanted him to shoot the film in color and even suggested Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the roles of Dick and Perry.
While Truman Capote approved the choice of Brooks as director over all other candidates, he was still not allowed to read the screenplay, which Brooks had written himself. The director bluntly told him, "Truman, I can't work that way. Either you trust me to make it or you don't." When Capote finally viewed the film, he made the following remarks in private, "The introduction of the reporter, who acted as a kind of Greek chorus, didn't make sense. There also wasn't enough on the Clutter family. The book was about six lives, not two, and it ruined it to concentrate so much on Perry and Dick. On the other hand, I thought that the actors who played the two boys were very well cast, acted well, and were directed well." Indeed, critics were especially impressed with the performances of Robert Blake (a former child actor who appeared in Our Gang comedies) as Perry and Scott Wilson as Dick. But both actors were ignored when the Academy Award nominations for 1967 were announced. Instead In Cold Blood received Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Conrad Hall), and Best Music Score (Quincy Jones).
Director/Producer: Richard Brooks
Screenplay: Richard Brooks, Truman Capote (novel)
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall
Music: Quincy Jones
Art Direction: Robert F. Boyle
Principle Cast: Robert Blade (Perry Smith), Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock), John Forsythe (Alvin Dewey), Paul Stewart (Reporter Jenson), Gerald S. O'Loughlin (Harold Nye), Jeff Corey (Mr. Hickock), John Gallaudet (Roy Church).
by Jeff Stafford