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The crime that never lost its chill

Outstanding acting and Oscar-nominated writing, cinematography and score make 'In Cold Blood' a classic.

March 03, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Multiple Oscar nominee "Capote" is not the only film to pivot around the 1959 rural Kansas killings of wealthy wheat farmer Herbert Clutter and his family.

Made nearly 40 years ago, Richard Brooks' film version of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," the book he is writing in "Capote," has been reissued just in time for Sunday's Academy Award festivities. Scheduled to play for a week at the Nuart in West Los Angeles, its reappearance is a cause for celebration all by itself, especially in the spectacular new 35-millimeter print struck for the occasion.

In fact, if repertory cinemas still existed, these two films would make the ideal double bill. They cover different aspects of the same story in such a complementary way that it would be a fascinating exercise to literally cut them together and come up with one highly unusual four-hour epic.

While the current film focuses on Capote's personal relationship with killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, 1967's "In Cold Blood" is almost entirely about the murder, the killers' relationship to each other and law enforcement attempts to capture them.

In fact, no one named "Truman Capote" so much as appears in "In Cold Blood." However, gravely voiced and somber Paul Stewart shows up as a reporter named Jensen, clearly intended as the author's doppelganger, though an actor with a persona more completely different than the whimsical Capote could not be imagined.

Also portrayed differently are the two killers, with Robert Blake playing Smith and Scott Wilson as Hickock. Because theirs is the film's most alive relationship, there is considerably more theatricality to these characters in the 1967 film. Smith and Hickock are more blown up, larger than life if you will, perhaps a trifle self-conscious but, with actors as strong as Blake and Wilson in the parts, always involving.

Written and directed by Richard Brooks (who got two of the film's four Oscar nominations), "In Cold Blood" has the same kind of florid, emotional tone that characterizes other Brooks films, such as "Elmer Gantry" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." But in this case, that pulpy sensibility is held in check by the contributions of the two other "In Cold Blood" collaborators who got Oscar nominations.

One of those was composer Quincy Jones, whose smart and unsettling jazz score, reminiscent of the work Duke Ellington did with Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder," prevents us from getting more comfortable with the story than we should be.

The great glory of "In Cold Blood" from today's perspective, however, is Conrad Hall's absolutely breathtaking wide-screen black-and-white cinematography. "In Cold Blood" was one of Hall's 10 Oscar nominations (he won three times, but lost 1967's award to "Bonnie & Clyde"), and his work here has to be one of the great wide-screen efforts. Hall's bleak vision, his gift for working with darkness and rain, rivals classic film noir of the 1940s and '50s in its visual mastery. If seeing "Good Night, and Good Luck" made you miss the old days of glorious black and white, this is an answer to your prayers.

If Brooks' tone sometimes seems heightened, it's not because he was indifferent to reality.

In fact, he went to some trouble in "In Cold Blood" to shoot in the actual Clutter house, to use seven of the original 12 jury members as well as the actual hangman that ended Smith's and Hickock's lives.

Still, the most memorable section of the film is the chilling quarter-hour devoted to the apprehension and eventual murder of the Clutter family. Captured in unblinking, neo-documentary detail, it freezes the blood just as they did all those decades ago.


`In Cold Blood'

MPAA rating: R

A Sony Repertory release. Producer-writer-director Richard Brooks. Cinematographer Conrad Hall. Editor Peter Zinner. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes.

Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

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