Only a Lad
Film essay by: Witney Seibold
Four members of the Clutter family were murdered in their Kansas home in the early 1960s. Truman Capote, on assignment, went to Kansas to interview the friends of the victims and, notably, the apprehended killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Smith and Hickock were hanged by the state. Capote’s 1966 biography/novel about the six killings, In Cold Blood, caused a sensation, and led to Richard Brooks’ 1967 film. The film, of course, also caused a sensation: for its graphic violence, it’s sympathy with the killers, and it’s (unusual for the time) stand against the death penalty. And while the shock may have worn off in the past few decades, and the violence surpassed by Hollywood wham-bang, the strength of the characters, our need to sympathize with them, and the message that the executions are just as senseless as the original murders, has lasted. Even shaped our view of crime and criminals.
Dick Hickock was played by Scott Wilson, and Perry Smith by Robert Blake. They are portrayed as desperate sad-sacks. Ignorant, unhappy, abused, co-dependant losers. Conrad Hall’s stark black and white photography washes out any hope, and, well, color, that these men possess. Ex-cons, they lean on each other across the flat grey landscape of center America. Dick makes the plans and scouts the victims, Perry accepts the browbeating, and makes the more rash decisions. Dick is a bully. Perry chews handfuls of aspirin, and holds himself as if he’s never doing anything quite right. Individually, the film states, they are not capable of murder, but together, they form the rage, the insecurity, the greed, the desperation, to commit murder. The film has a surprisingly homey tone. The small towns, the intimate stuffy Tijuana hotel rooms, the beautiful sequences where Perry and Dick are picked up by an elderly man and his little grandson, and the periodically stop along the side of the road to collect bottles. It’s all a way to get close into the minds of the two criminals, and let us understand why they did what they did. Not condone it, mind you, but at least understand it.
The story is told slightly out of order. In fact, we’re not even given the entire killing sequence until right near the end of the film after Dick and Perry are already on death row. We see, in an extended flashback sequence, what really happened. There is no music, a little light. We have reached the lowest point in these two men’s lives. Then, within the flashback, we cut to Perry’s father threatening him with a gun. The flashback climax, the motivation, is the kind of editing enthusiastic professors teach their film students.
Also included is the subplot of the police officer (John Forsythe) and the reporter (Paul Stewart) following our boys. The reporter is presumably Capote himself, and, as the reporter begins narrating during the film’s prison sequences (kind of a distraction as it preaches and pontificates at inappropriate spots), we get the true gist of the film: there are six senseless murders committed: four by Dick and Perry, and two by the state.
The most notable aspect about this film is its complete lack of glamour. In too many Hollywood films, the criminals are kind of romanticized. They’re seen as cool, above the system, free-thinkers raging against the unjust machinery of the Man. In fact, there’s been a recent trend, even, to vilify the police. While there have been reports of cops thieving, accepting bribes, and beating non-whites, I’m fairly certain that there are scads of decent police people out there doing a good job. “In Cold Blood” does none of this. The criminals, as I have said, are grey and depressed people. They are short and sawed-off. They bicker a lot. Robert Blake’s sad eyes and beefy build paired with Scott Wilson’s lipless rictus and tense body make the two into credible and sympathetic outsiders. The people we see, but ignore.
As for the anti-death penalty message: The film, however, seems to be slightly torn. It does indeed state that the killing of these two criminals is the result of corrupt and vengeful thinking; of a system that is designed not to forgive (in the second half, it never once feels as if there’s any hope of survival for the two). And yet, the killing of the Clutter family, the darkness and violence of their acts, indeed the darkness within them, is also portrayed as something that needs to be destroyed. Overall, it is an anti-death penalty film, but, like any good analysis of an issue, it makes sure to examine and present both sides.
“In Cold Blood” is an extraordinary film, and most certainly one of the best crime films ever. When we see the silhouette of the raindrops pouring down Perry’s face as he stares out from the window of his prison cell, we feel the pain of a lonely soul. We know.