Despite how influential Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood was considered at its release (a book which, to be perfectly honest, I still haven't read), the film adaptation of the same name is likely just as groundbreaking within its own medium, if not more so. After all, released in 1967, it played side-by-side in theaters with such watersheds as Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, films which helped pushed the envelopes on cinematic portrayals of sex & violence, but most importantly, advanced the cinematic style of Hollywood film by light years, leaving behind a legacy that's still felt in the industry to this day. However, though it was slightly buried in that year's box office compared to those two juggernauts, In Cold Blood is still just as intense and devastating an experience as ever, feeling as though it's barely aged a day since its release 50 years ago, making it rank as my current favorite film from that legendary year, and also just one of the best movies I've seen from any year, period.
The film tells the true story of Dick Hickock & Perry Smith, two ex-convicts who, in November of 1959, robbed and murdered the Clutters, an idyllic family of Kansas farmers, as the title says, "in cold blood". However, while the murders are obviously the film's inciting incident, director Richard Brooks smartly doesn't structure it as such, instead, showing us what happened just before and after that haunted night, revealing to us chilling details in the aftermath, such as a severed phone cord, a bloody shoeprint, the ropes that were utilized to hogtie the Clutters as they waited to be slaughtered. The police investigation of, community reactions to, and journalist reportings on the crime proceed in a parallel track in the film to Dick and Perry's short-lived life on the run, drifting from Mexico to back to Kansas and all points inbetween, before being apprehended for a final time during a gambling trip to Vegas.
All this time on the road gives us ample opportunity to gain deeper insights into both men, delving intimately into both their individual and shared psychologies. Dick, played by a fresh off In The Heat Of The Night Scott Wilson, is casually, arrogantly psychopathic, but is nonetheless humanized by his dark "friendship" with Perry, and by the way he very humanly cracks under the weight of crimes once he's brought to justice, while Perry himself, agonizingly portrayed by a young Robert Blake, is the product of an unfaithful, alcoholic mother, a physically & emotionally abusive father, and a damaged childhood in general. He's an awkward, pathetic, broken man, both physically and mentally, constantly gulping down aspirin in the hopes of quelling at least one of his many pains, and the tense, uneasy relationship Dick & Perry share throughout the film give In Cold Blood its backbone, as we travel with, and grow to somehow pity both of these confessed killers, reminding us that even the "monsters" among us are still, at the end of the day, fellow human beings as well, no matter how damaged or reprehensible they may seem at first.
The horror of their relationship culminates during the aforementioned night of the murders, which Richard Brooks brilliantly flashes back to for the climax of the film, giving the scene a powerful, personal weight it would've lacked if we hadn't already spent so much time getting to know these characters. The pivotal, long-delayed sequence doesn't disappoint once it finally arrives in all its haunting glory, lasting over 15 minutes, and showing us in agonizing detail the step-by-step process of the robbery, as Dick & Perry intrude upon and restrain the Clutter family, searching in futile vain for a safe full of money that doesn't even turn out to be there. The whole sequence is vividly captured by Conrad Hall's stark, intensely intimate black-&-white cinematography, and plays out in almost complete silence on the soundtrack, as the desolate Kansas wind howls outside like some sort haunted spectre, and, when the murders finally do happen, they are almost as upsetting to witness on film as they would have been in person. Though hardly graphic in its level of violence by today's jaded standards, the sequence is nonetheless captured with an incredible intensity that was not only unseen in the films of that time, but remains rare even today, proving that indeed, sometimes less is much, much more.
This intensity that is delivered during the film's centerpiece scene is reflected throughout the entirety of In Cold Blood, rendering the before and afters of the massacre equally memorable in their vividness, and the film doesn't try and make a real sort of sense or meaning out of the central tragedy, portraying it equally as senseless on film as it really was in life. And, at the finale, as the gallow trapdoor opens and Smith falls to the end of his rope, there are no more answers to give, just the sound of the man's heart slowly stopping, as the film fades away into black one last time.