Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart
Oscar Nominations: Best Director (Richard Brooks), Best Adapted Screenplay (Richard Brooks), Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall), Best Music, Original Score (Quincy Jones)
SUMMARY: In 1959, Perry Smith (Robert Blake) has just been paroled from prison. When he gets out, he receives a letter from former prison-mate Richard “Dick” Hickock (Scott Wilson), asking to meet up. When the two meet, Hickock explains that he has information about a big score: the robbery of a wealthy farmer. The farmer, named Herb Clutter, lives in Kansas; as part of his parole, Smith is forbidden to enter Kansas. Hickock heard about the Clutters from a cellmate of his, who once did odd jobs on the farm. Though Smith is reluctant to commit a crime again (he doesn’t want to return to prison), he eventually agrees. The two plan to sneak into the Clutter house at night, force Mr. Clutter to open the safe where the money is stored, then leave. On the drive to Kansas and the Clutter house, the two buy a number of supplies, but are unable to find black stockings to wear over their faces. When they finally arrive at the farm, they wait until the family seems to have gone to bed. They quickly find Mr. Clutter, but their plan goes awry when other members of the family wake up, too. The pair end up binding all of the family members: Mr. and Mrs. Clutter, and their two teenage children. When questioned, Mr. Clutter replies that there is no safe in the house, but does offer to write the men a check. Hickock and Smith begin ransacking the house, but eventually Smith realizes that Clutter is telling the truth, and that there is no large sum of money in the house. Hickock refuses to believe this, and becomes more and more agitated. When he comes upon the Clutters’ teenage daughter, he tries to assault her before he is stopped by Smith. While in the basement with Mr. Clutter (this is shown later in the movie, in flashback), Smith experiences a flashback of his own abusive father, and seems to snap. He cuts Mr. Clutter’s throat, then shoots him. To ensure that there are no witnesses, the two then shoot the rest of the family. They are only able to find $43 in the house. After leaving the farm, the two head to Mexico.
The bodies of the Clutter family are found the next day, but because Hickock and Smith are complete strangers, nobody suspects them. On their way to Mexico, they pass a number of bad checks in order to build up a cash supply. This allows them to live the high life in Mexico for a short time, but their money eventually runs out. Hickock decides to go back to the U.S.; because of their dual involvement in the murders, Smith decides he has to go with him. They return to the States, and go to Las Vegas to try to win more money. While there, they continue to pass bad checks, and also steal a car. It is this last crime that finally leads to their arrest. Meanwhile, police in Kansas have actually managed to tie the two men to the Clutter murders; when they hear that the pair have been arrested in Las Vegas, they head out to interview them. Hickock and Smith both willingly admit to the bad checks and car theft, but claim to know nothing about the Clutter murders. The police then show them evidence used to tie them to the crime scene, including bloody footprints. They also claim that there is a witness. Smith steadfastly refuses to answer their questions, but Hickock eventually cracks and implicates Smith, in an attempt to avoid the death penalty. When Smith is confronted with Hickock’s suggestion, he finally starts talking. He admits that he was the one who murdered all four people (the gunshots and the throat-cutting), but refutes Hickock’s claim that it was solely his fault. Instead, Smith tells the police that Hickock was right beside him during the murders, and even egged him on. The two are returned to Kansas, where they are put on trial. While the prosecution takes several days to present its case, the defense takes only an hour and a half; the jury needs just 40 minutes to find both men guilty. They are both sentenced to hang. The appeals take several years, but eventually both men are hanged.
MY TAKE: I have actually read the book In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, and I read it several years before seeing the movie. The book is really good, and I flew through it. However, I didn’t think that the movie was as good as the book. It’s very critically acclaimed, but I thought it was rather slow. This makes sense, because the actual crime takes only a few minutes to occur, and there aren’t any big pursuits or shootouts. The book is able to work this, because it can detail the police work that went into first investigating the crime scene, then identifying the suspects. Given that Hickock and Smith were strangers, and only in town long enough to commit the crime, this is pretty impressive (especially in the era before DNA). However, you can’t really show this effectively in a movie. Instead, the film focuses more on the characters of the murderers, particularly Smith, who was known to be mentally unstable. This part is interesting to watch, especially during the murder scene. Smith seems to sympathize with the Clutter family, and doesn’t want to harm them. Even so, it is him that eventually kills all of them up-close and personal. He’s kind of egged on by Hickock, but the first murder, of Mr. Clutter, is completely self-motivated (that flashback of his father). It’s not a bad movie, it’s just slow for a crime story.
Fun facts: Robert Blake, who played Perry Smith, went on to great success in the TV series Baretta. More recently (and more infamously), he was tried for the murder of his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley. Thought he was acquitted of her murder, a civil court later found him liable for her wrongful death (much like the events of O.J. Simpson’s case).
John Forsythe, who plays the lead detective Alvin Dewey, is the voice of Charlie in the Charlie’s Angels TV shows and 2000s-era movies.
RATING: Okay, not great.