Sunday, 22 April 2012

In Cold Blood (1967)

Dir. Richard Brooks
Starring: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart

When I sat down to watch In Cold Blood I did not know what to expect. I knew the basic overview, that it was the dramatisation of a book written by Truman Capote about a real life 1959 crime in which a family of four were murdered during a robbery. What I did not know was that the film would be so fascinating to watch.

The film opens with Perry Smith (Robert Blake), a quiffed leather-jacket-wearing young man, riding the bus through the night to Kansas City, Missouri. At the bus station he places a panicking call to a prison chaplain who warns him not to set foot in Kansas as to do so would be to break the terms of his parole. Meanwhile a car drives to meet him, behind the wheel is Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock (Scott Wilson), a man with a plan. His plan is to drive four hundred miles west through Kansas to the farm of the Clutter family. He has it on authority from a former cell-mate that Mr Clutter keeps $10,000 in a safe in his office. They plan to break in, steal the money, and escape to Mexico. Their inability to find black stockings to hide their faces is not a problem; they plan to leave no witnesses

The next morning the bodies are found. The FBI are called to the scene. The killings seem pointless – rather than $10,000 all that was taken was $43, a radio and a pair of binoculars. And apart from two boot-prints no evidence has been left behind. No evidence, no clues, no witnesses. The police would need a miracle to crack the case. Thankfully instead they have two criminals making bad decision after bad decision. The smooth-talking Hickock raises funds by liberally spreading around bad cheques, getting credit or pawning his purchases. They then escape south, over the border to Mexico. Before long, however, they have spent all their loot on living expenses – hotels, food, and (in Hickock’s case) whores. With the remainder of their cash they buy two tickets back to the U.S. They hitchhike from California to Iowa, where they steal a car. They then head back to down to Las Vegas where they are arrested – Dick’s former cell-mate has notified the police of his interest in the Clutters. Their footwear matches the boot-prints found at the Clutter farm. Confronted with this evidence they finally confess. It had taken six months to hunt them down. A jury takes just forty minutes to convict them.

And then something strange happens. The film does not end with the conviction. The story is finished off the only way it can: with their deaths. There is a final coda as the pair of them wait on Death Row, issuing appeal against appeal. Each appeal is refused. And then on the morning of 14th April 1965 they are taken out one after the other to the old tin-roofed warehouse known as ‘The Corner’ where they are executed.

I was not expecting this last section, and it is beautifully done. The mundanity of a life spent waiting for death is beautifully captured through Dick’s conversations with the reporter, Jenson (Paul Stewart). Meanwhile Perry is repentant of his crimes. There is a scene as he takes confession with the prison pastor while waiting for his appointment with the hangman’s noose where he reflects back upon his life, trying to find even a single moment when he could, perhaps, have been happy, and it becomes clear that this was a man who never had a chance. Reflections from the rain battering against the window cast ghostly shadows of tears running down his face (a completely unplanned effect). “I’d like to apologise” he says, “but who to?” And why must they die? Agent Dewey (John Forsythe) sums up the results of the executions:
“Four innocent and two guilty people murdered. Three families broken. Newspapers have sold more papers. Politicians will make more speeches. Police and parole boards will get more blame. More laws will be passed. Everybody will pass the buck. And then next month, next year… the same thing will happen again.”
“Well, maybe this will help to stop it.”  
“Never has.”
Dick understands why they must be killed; he equates it simply as “revenge”. “Hell, hanging’s only getting revenge. What’s wrong with revenge? I’ve been revenging myself all my life. Sure, I’m for hanging. Just so long as I’m not the one being hanged.” The only person who can understand the motives of the state in executing them is a killer; he sees a moral equivalency between the criminal and the law. The hangman is paid $300 a drop, so $600 for the two deaths, not bad for a couple of hours’ work. He makes more money from the Clutter murders than Hickock and Smith ever did. The trap door is opened below Smith and he drops to his death. The scene is replaced by a screen once again stating the film’s name: “In Cold Blood”. All along we knew that the Clutters had been killed in cold blood, with malice aforethought. And now we are presented with two more killings, likewise carried out in cold blood. Hickock and Smith were not killed in rage or passion or the heat of the moment. Their deaths were a long, drawn-out, pre-planned affair.

If the last message of the film was a surprise, so too was the staging of the action. The crisp black and white cinematography, the sharp editing, the too-cool-for-school soundtrack – it all combined to create an almost impressionistic effect. It was like watching a 1960s French art house movie – but one with a clear plot and a serious story. There are shots of cars and buses barrelling along the endless night-time roads of Kansas, with the insistent double bass of Quincy Jones’s jazz-fused score creating a sense of speed and urgency. Smith will move towards a door… And out the other side steps Mr Clutter. The scene has changed to the domestic bliss of the Clutter home, tranquil, almost balletic, music twittering in the background. A splash of water on the face and we are back with Smith in a bus station rest room. One of the most notable dissolves is when Hickock finally admits to his involvement. He slumps to his side as if dead as a shot rings out. Only then does the scene change to the exterior of the police station, revealing the shot heard in the last scene to have been the kick-starting of a motorbike engine. Sound cues always occur just before the visual scene change, whipping the viewer along with the action.

As for the action at the Clutter residence, we do not see that at first. Hickock’s car draws up outside at midnight on the Saturday and Perry expresses reservations. The next we see is the discovery of the bodies on Sunday morning while a church bell clangs ominously in the background as if it were tolling a funeral. We just see the puzzled law enforcement agencies trying to make some sort of sense out of the killings, and the misadventures of the two murderers. Their recourse to collecting empty Coke bottles from the side of the road for three cents a time is particularly black comedy. Here we get to see more of their personalities. We see the charm and confidence of Dick, certain that they can still make a new life for themselves on “$43 and a smile and bullshit”. We see the messed-up childhood of Perry with a deluded father and a drunken mother. When Dick brings a Mexican prostitute back to their room we see her through Perry’s eyes taking on the characteristics of his departed mother with yet another of her lovers, her children huddled in the corner, and we see his father storming in and beating her. Notably this scene comes just after Dewey is presented with a psychologist’s view that killers in similar cases often “felt physically inferior and sexually inadequate.” The inference is that Perry, with his damaged legs and his traumatised reaction to Dick’s womanising, has turned his impotency into violence. When they confess we, finally, see the killings. The hapless criminals increasing frustration at how their plans have gone wrong turns their earlier concern and care for the Clutters into an instinctive murderous rage.

Killers in a crowd:
Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson)

There is a strong homoerotic thread running between the two killers. They call each other “honey”, “baby”: “Baby it’s a cinch. I promise you honey, we’ll blast hair all other them walls.” Dick refers to them as a “family”. And there is something unsettling about the prostitute scene. When Dick says that he has a “señorita” coming over that evening, Perry says that he will attempt to make himself scarce. Dick’s reply is “What for? Hell, I’m not bashful, baby.” Dick kinda likes having Perry in the room while he makes love. He also considers taking advantage of 16-year-old Nancy Clutter (Brenda Currin) while she is tied up. Dick seems the urbane, confident, civilised half of the double-act, but he seems the most amoral.

It is hard to classify In Cold Blood. It is not a ‘whodunnit’, as we know who is going to do it before they do, actually, do it. It is maybe a morality tale, showing that crime does not pay. But it has such an inventive, immersive ‘60s spin on it that it is hard not to be drawn in. Smith and Hickock are charismatic anti-heroes with their own individual traits and tics that help the audience to identify them as people, albeit people who have committed a terrible and senseless crime. Certainly the fact that I knew none of the cast helped. If, as the studio had first wished, the two murderers had been played by Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, I think it would have been very distracting. Despite the editing and cinematographic tricks and the wonderful soundtrack the film manages to blur the line between dramatisation and verité. I felt almost as though I was along with the murderers for the thrill ride.

What have I learnt about Kansas?
“Welcome to Kansas, buddy: the heart of America. The land of wheat, corn, Bibles and natural gas!”
Wheat and corn I could have guessed. Bibles was a safe bet. Natural gas I didn’t know. So for three out of those four it seems that land is a prerequisite. If you own land, you can make money – hence the belief that even in the 1950s Mr Clutter would keep $10,000 in cash at his house. And if you don’t have land you are at a disadvantage – see Mr Smith’s wagon and Mr Hickock’s shack for comparison. And it looks like the meek might not be content to wait to take over the earth. Yet there is a trust in the air. Doors are left unlocked. Salesmen cash cheques on the basis of a trustworthy smile. The shock that something so horrific can happen in such a quiet little place is palpable.

Yet Kansas ain’t so little. The route from Kansas City to Holcomb, casually undertaken by the killers, is 400 miles long. That’s the equivalent of collecting someone in London for a trip up to the Scottish highlands. In area, Kansas is larger than Scotland. And it seems as though the road verges are all ankle-deep in Coke bottles, tossed from cars as they drive.

But it is not all dry, parched landscapes. The cold, howling wind features prominently in the film, as does the beating rain.

Can we go there?
I’m a little disturbed by quite how much of the film was shot on location. It is not just a case of director Richard Brooks deciding to film in Kansas, or Holcomb. He films right where the events took place. Literally. The Clutter residence seen on screen is the actual Clutter residence, River Valley Farm in Holcomb. Those pictures on the walls are pictures of the real Clutter family. The rooms where the Clutters get ‘killed’ on screen are the rooms where they were actually killed in real life. Personally I find that just a little bit too macabre for my liking.

The courtroom where Smith and Hickock are convicted is the actual Finney County Court in which they were convicted (and six of the onscreen jury were members of the real-life jury). The prison in which they are incarcerated is the actual Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, in which they were incarcerated. And the gallows in ‘The Corner’ is the real gallows which was used to execute the pair. Since the reintroduction of the death penalty in Kansas in 1994 no execution has actually taken place at Lansing; should one occur it will be by lethal injection rather than hanging.

If you particularly want to be a ghoul I should point out that the Clutter farm is privately owned and cannot be viewed. The family are buried in the Valley View Cemetery in neighbouring Garden City. FBI Agent Alvin Dewey is also buried there. The gallows used for the execution of Smith and Hickock is now part of the collection at the History Museum of Kansas in Topeka.

Overall Rating: 5/5

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