In the early morning hours of Sunday, November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, a horrific crime that gained national attention was committed. Four members of the Clutter family – Herb, a prosperous and well-respected farmer, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon, were brutally murdered. All four had been shot to death at close range with a shotgun. The women had been slain in their beds; Herb and Kenyon had been taken to the basement of their home and tied up before being shot. Herb Clutter had also had his throat cut.
The Clutter case came to national attention after the New York Times printed a news article about the crime on the day after the slayings. That news story eventually led author Truman Capote to investigate the crime and write a serialized account of it for the New York Times. Capote later decided to put his work into book form. That book, entitled In Cold Blood, told the story of how two ex-convicts, acting on a tip from a fellow criminal, traveled 400 miles across Kansas in order to rob the Clutters of a rumored large sum of cash. In Cold Blood became a huge best-seller and spawned an entirely new genre of non-fiction: the true crime detective story. The book became the basis for the subject of this review: the 1967 film In Cold Blood.
The film In Cold Blood stars Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart, and Gerald S. O’Loughlin. It is in every way a wonderfully crafted and multi-faceted film – part murder mystery, part police procedural, part crime thriller. It conveys with tremendous accuracy the chilling tale which Truman Capote brilliantly told in his book.
The story begins with our two killers – Perry Smith (played by Blake) and Dick Hickok (played by Wilson). Smith, a recent parolee from Kansas State Penitentiary, has just violated the terms of his release by returning to the state of Kansas. Smith is short, stocky, and suffers from constant pain as a result of injuries he received in a motorcycle accident. He is volatile, violent, and possessed with a menacing reserve. His partner, Dick Hickok, is also a paroled ex-convict. He’s much more extroverted, a smooth talker… and in possession of a plan to rob and murder a wealthy Kansas farmer.
On the night of November 14, 1959, our two miscreants meet in a bus station in Kansas City, Missouri. They drive 400 miles across the state of Kansas to the tiny village of Holcomb, where Herb Clutter owns and operates the River Valley Farm. Smith and Hickok’s plan is to force Clutter to open his safe, steal his money, and then kill everyone in the house. The two felons arrive at the Clutter homestead at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 15th…
…Later that morning, the Clutters’ neighbors arrive to pick up Nancy for church. When nobody answers the doorbell, the neighbors go inside, where they discover the grisly results of Smith and Hickok’s earlier visit: Herb, Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon Clutter have been massacred, torn apart by shotgun blasts.
Local and state law enforcement agencies are quick to respond. The investigation is placed in the hands of Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) agent Alvin Dewey (played by John Forsythe) and his very capable assistant, Harold Nye (Gerald S. O’Loughlin). Dewey is a local area resident and a personal friend of Herb Clutter’s. With meticulous care, he and his team of investigators begin the task of searching for clues to the identity of whoever murdered the Clutters. They are hampered by the paucity of forensic evidence left behind by the killers.
Meanwhile, Smith and Hickok are on the run throughout the southwestern United States. They even venture into Mexico for a while as they pursue Smith’s grandiose dream of finding Cortes’ sunken treasure. Tension mounts between the two killers as they hear radio reports of the manhunt on for them, and as their already dire financial conditions worsen.
After weeks of frustration, Alvin Dewey’s investigators finally catch a break in the case. A prison inmate, who had formerly shared a cell with Hickok, tips off the KBI that Hickok had previously told him of his plan to rob and kill the Clutters…
How do Dewey and his team finally track down Smith and Hickok? What mistakes do the killers make that lead to their capture? What really happened at the Clutter house on November 15, 1959? And what is the fate that awaits Perry Smith and Dick Hickok after their arrest? Watch In Cold Blood to find out!
Movies based on true crimes are one of my favorite film genres, and In Cold Blood ranks as one of my favorite true crime dramas. This is a masterful movie in nearly every respect. The acting, writing, and cinematography are all superb. Robert Blake’s portrayal of Perry Smith is especially noteworthy. Blake effortlessly brings to life the emotional instability and violent tendencies of this psychopathic criminal. Scott Wilson, a heretofore little-known actor, is equally brilliant as the garrulous, ingratiating, but equally violent Dick Hickok. John Forsythe and Gerald S. O’Loughlin bring just the right touch of restrained righteous anger to their roles as Agents Alvin Dewey and Harold Nye.
Richard Brooks wrote and directed In Cold Blood. His script is written with intelligence and great respect for the facts of the case. Although the film contains precious little action, it maintains an excellent level of tension throughout its 2¼-hour running time. I’ve watched In Cold Blood several times now, and each time I found myself getting totally immersed in the story, unable to tear myself away until the closing credits began.
Brooks’ choice of filming In Cold Blood in black and white was a master stroke. That, coupled with Conrad Hall’s expert cinematography, gives the film a brooding darkness and heightens the sense of 1950s realism.
As good a film as In Cold Blood is, it contains two minor annoying flaws. First, the part of the reporter “Jensen” was miscast. It’s well known that the “Jensen” character is based on Truman Capote, the actual reporter who befriended Alvin Dewey. It would have been beneficial if the film’s director had cast someone younger and who more closely resembled Capote to play this pivotal part. My second criticism is that the film reveals a mild degree of political bias as it nears its end. Writer/Director Richard Brooks should have resisted the temptation to incorporate any kind of political statements, no matter how subtle, into his otherwise superlative script.
These two minor gripes aside, In Cold Blood remains one of the finest true crime movies ever written. It accurately brings to life one of the most harrowing and now nearly forgotten criminal cases in American history. It’s brilliantly acted, written, and produced, and a “must-see” for anyone interested in a great true crime story!
Personal viewing of the film In Cold Blood on DVD
In Cold Blood DVD liner notes
Personal reading of the book In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Personal viewing of the film Capote on DVD
Personal viewing of Capote DVD special features
In Cold Blood – Wikipedia article