Monday, February 24, 2014

In Cold Blood

Robert Blake (l.) and Scott Wilson in In Cold Blood

TCM is looking at late-era black-and-white movies this evening, with the nominees for Best Art Design of 1965 for black-and-white movies of 1965. There's another one coming up tomorrow at 10:15 AM: In Cold Blood.

Robert Blake stars as Perry Smith, a petty criminal who at the start of the movie has just been released from prison and is supposed to make the difficult transition back to regular life. He's at a bus station in Kansas City, MO, where he's going to meet up with his old friend Dick Hickok (Scott Wilson). Even in this opening we see that something isn't quite right with Perry, as he falls into some sorr of reverie when he looks at himself in the mirror; something for which Dick teases Perry. But Perry is meeting dick for a more important reason. When Dick was in prison, he heard from his cellmate about a farm family over in the town of Holcomb, in the western part of Kansas, that had a wall safe with some $10,000 in it, a fairly substantial sum for the late 1950s. Dick has figured out how he and Perry can get that money.

So the two set off on a road trip to Holcomb. Meanwhile, we get to see a day in the life of the Clutter family. They're the ones who live in the farmhouse, the one with the wall safe. They, of course, have no idea that there are two guys who are going to come and take that ten grand from the wall safe. Of course, they couldn't know: there is no wall safe and no $10,000, something that Dick and Perry aren't going to learn until later that evening, when they come for the apocryphal money. The Clutters go to bed, safe in the knowledge that they live a nice peaceful life in a nice peaceful place.

The next morning, the help comes in, and finds four dead bodies in the house: the Clutter family has been murdered. We know that Perry and Dick did it, but of course the authorities have no way of knowing this, so they're meticulously gathering clues, trying to find a killer. Dick and Perry, meanwhile, have made their escape, with a few items they stole from the house and a whopping $40 or so in cash -- as I said, there was no wall safe. The two killers go first to Mexico, since Perry swears up and down that he's got a map leading to ancient treasure. Really. It's more that Perry is trying to do something big to impress his estranged father, with whom he's always had a love/hate relationship.

But the Mexico scenes are the slow part of the movie, and thankfully our two killers head back for the US since they're out of money. They'd been passing bad checks the last time they were in the States; it should come as no surprise that they have to resort to crime to make it once they're back in the States. This leads to the two of them getting caught in Las Vegas on charges of having stolen a car. The police in Las Vegas have no idea who the two young men are that they've captured; eventually, the detectives back in Kansas get news of them and have good reason to believe these are the two guys who murdered the Clutter family.

Dick finally cracks, and reveals that he was one of the two guys who killed the Clutters, so it off to Kansas for the two young men, who are tried, found guilty, and executed after a long series of appeals is denied. In the meantime, Perry get to make a fuller confession.

I hope I'm not giving too much away, but to be fair, In Cold Blood is based on true events. Author Truman Capote investigated the case after it made the headlines, and wrote a painstaking book on the subject, from which the movie was made. So, viewers may already know a bit about the subject coming in to the movie, even if it's just the existence of the book and that it's based on real murders. In Cold Blood isn't so much a story about the murder of a family as it is about the two men who killed that family. In fact, we don't actually see the murder until near the end of the film with Dick and Perry make their confessions and relate how the murder happened. When the family is first killed, we only see the two men approaching the house at night, with a cut to the dead bodies being discovered the next day. The parts of the movie that could be a police procedural are good, with John Forsythe as the detective heading up the case; the character study of Dick and Perry is even better. Scott Wilson is good as Dick, the glib con artist who looks relatively close to the boy next door. Robert Blake, meanwhile, is excellent as the more disturbed Perry. The movie is helped out immensely by its adherence to realism (there are some anachronisms such as a Las Vegas marquee advertising a Chita Rivera show, but these aren't germane to the actual story), and wonderful black and white cinematography.

In Cold Blood is in a few places a difficult movie to watch, such as when it gets to the dramatization of the murders, or taking its sweet time to get to the inevitable execution. But it's an outstanding movie.

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