By Roger Ebert
February 6, 1968
Link to review: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/in-cold-blood-1968
"In Cold Blood" is an eerie case. Not a movie. A case. The film
itself, which is fantastically powerful despite its flaws, is the last
episode in a chain which began eight years ago when the Herbert Clutter
family was murdered near Holcomb, Kansas. Without that murder, Richard Brooks would have been hard-pressed to make this movie, and Truman Capote would have found little employment as the New Yorker's rural correspondent.
I was typing up the cast credits, I came to the line "based on the book
by Truman Capote." Some grim humor suggested that I could keep on
typing: " . . . and the murders by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock." In an
important sense, this movie was created by Smith and Hickock. They spent
most of their lives compiling biographies that prepared them for their
Perry came from a violent childhood. His mother drank, his father
flew into explosive rages, he was beaten in orphanages. Dick came from
marginal poverty, a rootless existence without values. So both were
"victims of society,'' in the way defense attorneys use that term. For
their own victims, they chose the Clutter family--a well-off,
middle-class, God-fearing family that, in every respect, lived in an
If this had been fiction, the themes could not
have been more obvious. Two opposed cultures collide. The outsiders kill
the insiders in the first round, then lose the second to the hangman.
But the film is not based on fiction; the Clutter murders actually
happened. If you look at the list of characters you will find names like
Herb Clutter and Perry Smith. Real names. Also featured in the cast are
Sadie Truitt and Myrtle Clare playing themselves. They were citizens of
Holcomb on the night of the murders, and they still are today.
like that make it difficult to review, "In Cold Blood" as a movie. This
is not a work of the imagination, but a masterpiece of copying. Richard
Brooks and Truman Capote brought technical skill to their tasks in
recreating the murders, but imagination was not needed. All the events
had already happened. And every detail of the film, from the physical
appearance of the actors to the use of actual locations like the Clutter
farmhouse, was chosen to make the film a literal copy of those events.
do not object to this. Men have always learned about themselves by
studying the things their fellows do. If mass murders of this sort are
possible in American society (and many have been), then perhaps it is
useful to see a thoughtful film about one of them.
And to the
degree that "In Cold Blood" is an accurate, sensitive record of actual
events, it succeeds overpoweringly. The actors, Robert Blake (Smith) and Scott Wilson
(Hickock), are so good they pass beyond performances and almost into
life. Many other performances also have the flat, everyday, absolutely
genuine ring of truth to them. At times one feels this is not a movie
but a documentary that the events are taking place now.
What does bother me is the self-conscious "art" that Brooks allows
into his film. It does not mix with the actual events. The music on the
sound track, for example, is almost conventional Hollywood spook music,
as if these murders had to be made convincing. The sounds of the
landscape -- the wind and weather -- would have been music enough. Again
some of the photography is staged and distracting. We see Herb Clutter
shaving, and fade to one of the killers shaving. We see Perry's bus
transform itself into a Santa Fe train passing through Holomb. Gimmicks
like this belong in TV commercials.
Another of Brooks' mistakes, I
think, was his decision to write a liberal reporter into the script.
This figure obviously represents Capote. He hangs around during the last
half of the film, tells about Death Row, narrates the hangings and
provides instant morals about capital punishment. He is useless and
distracting. Brooks should either have used Capote himself or no one.
we are left with, however, is a film that this Hollywood artiness does
not damage very much. The sheer evocative power of the actual events and
places sweeps over the music and the trick photography and humbles
them. The story itself emerges as bleak and tragic as the day the
murders first occurred. The questions raised by Smith and Hickock's
senseless crime and the deaths of their undeserving victims are still as
impossible to answer.
• Link to the Original Story in The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1965/09/25/in-cold-blood-the-last-to-see-them-alive
• Chapter by Chapter with Spark Notes: https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/incoldblood/