The “New Hollywood” era is usually thought of as a series of formal and narrative changes brought on by an influx of young directors — the French New Wave channeled through 1960s counter-culture — as the controlling studio system collapsed. But it wasn’t always young upstarts at the vanguard. Richard Brooks was in his mid-50s when he directed In Cold Blood (1967), after more than a decade of racking up Oscar nominations within the studio system as the writer/director of prestigious projects like Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Elmer Gantry (1960). Unlike most of the filmmakers whose movies are considered key to this era, Brooks arguably peaked just as it began — but there’s no denying the influence of In Cold Blood as a transition from the artifice of studio storytelling to the gritty frankness of the “New Hollywood” movement.
Truman Capote’s best-seller — a “non-fiction novel,” as he described it — ushered in a new wave of true crime writing by not only reveling in the gruesome details of the murder of a family in rural Kansas, but by exploring the psychology of the killers and even depicting them (at least one of them) as victims. Brooks, in his adaptation, does the same for the crime movie genre (in a one-two punch with Bonnie and Clyde, which opened a few months earlier), cleverly setting up familiar tropes before gradually stripping melodrama away in favor of discomfiting matter-of-fact “realism.”
In Cold Blood begins like a classic noir, with a jazzy score (by the great Quincy Jones) and sinister shadows, but after a few minutes shifts its tone as the introduction of the Clutter family is accompanied by idyllic, syrupy overscoring. These normally manipulative trappings, however, aren’t left to linger, as Brooks undercuts both hyperbolic introductions with the immediate, gray mundanity of life. Perry Smith (Robert Blake) may have cut an initially foreboding figure, but he is quickly defanged as lost and hapless. The Clutters are simply ordinary, a household where the greatest dramas are a teenager sneaking a cigarette in the basement and a visit from an insurance salesman, each treated with the lack of excitement they deserve. Conrad Hall’s black-and-white cinematography has rich flourishes — typically during one of Smith's reveries or memories, as if to reiterate that reality is prosaic and anything heightened is suspect — but it mostly serves as a handsomely plain container for the seriousness of the subject matter.
Capote’s book engendered controversy not only for its violence, but for suggestions of literary embellishment, some perhaps inspired by a complicated authorial infatuation with Perry Smith (for more on this, see Bennett Miller’s solid 2005 Oscar-winner Capote), and it’s hard to divorce Brooks’ movie from these same accusations. Of the two killers, Dick Hickok (Scott Wilson) is depicted as a charming but cold sociopath, while Smith is given far deeper treatment, romanticized as a tortured, sensitive soul whose romantic dissociations and anguished temper are the result of a traumatic childhood. While the Clutters are only victimized once, and largely off-screen, Smith is psychologically abused by careless parents, manipulated by Hickcock, and once more abused by the state.
While the social commentary at the end verges on crass — the use of the title following the final shot has arguably indefensible implications — and the movie feels its 135-minute length most during a whimsical murderers’ road trip interlude and an overly anthropological approach to the post-arrest material — In Cold Blood has fantastic performances by Blake and Wilson, fine dialog, resonant psychological suggestions, a shattering but restrained depiction of the home-invasion and murders, and that iconic late scene of Blake with reflections of raindrops running down his face. It’s a powerful film that is both technically of the highest caliber and visionary in setting new standards for the treatment of crime and capital punishment in American movies.