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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
In Cold Blood (1967)

"Who would kill four people in cold blood for a radio, a pair of binoculars, and $40 in cash?"
- Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: October 27, 2003

Stars: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Jeff Corey
Director: Richard Brooks

MPAA Rating: R for language
Run Time: 02h:14m:19s
Release Date: September 23, 2003
UPC: 043396068315
Genre: crime


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B B+BB- D

DVD Review

These days, given his alleged involvement in his wife's murder, Robert Blake would probably be more than happy if he was most notable for Baretta; even that mid-'70s TV show, though, is a far cry from his best work, which you'll find on this DVD. Similarly, Truman Capote fans, lured in by Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany's, are going to be mighty surprised when they look at this movie, too—it's a stark, beautifully shot, and only occasionally overdone true crime story, made well, and well before these things were the staple of eighteen weekly episodes of Law and Order.

The film is based on Capote's book, which, aside from being an astonishing and understated bit of writing, set off something of a literary firestorm—it inaugurated the New Journalism, in which reporters combined a newspaperman's dogged pursuit of the facts with a novelist's tools. Capote dared to tell us what the people in his story were thinking and feeling; if you know him only through his fiction or his fatuous performances later in life, you're missing the best of him.

As the title suggests, the tale is a chilling one: it follows a couple of Kansas ex-cons, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, on their largely pointless spree murdering the innocent Clutter family, whose only mistake was having once employed a prison buddy of Hickock's. Hickock has delusions of grandeur, of a safe brimming with cash somewhere in the Clutters' home; he and Perry forge a bloody path and make off only with just a couple of odd souvenirs.

The film isn't suspenseful, exactly; the case was notorious in its time, and made more so by Capote's book. John Forsythe plays the Kansas detective heading up the investigation; he's a limited actor, but he conveys a strong Midwestern sense of decency, something obviously sorely lacking in the men he pursues. The best performance here is certainly Blake's—he's just out of prison, and hooks back up with his buddy Dick, who nudges him back into a life of crime. Blake ably conveys both Perry's obvious menace and the psychological wounds that have brought him down this very wrong path; at one point, he gives himself a makeshift bath in a sink in a bus depot, and standing there in only his underwear, his body festooned with scars and tattoos, he demonstrates a chilling mixture of vulnerability and danger. Scott Wilson as Dick isn't quite as strong, but he does do some solid work—it's always the stupid one who fancies himself the brains of the operation.

Screenwriter/director Richard Brooks can sometimes be a little heavy handed, and the film is at its least successful when it's giving crude psychological reasons why Perry turned out this way. (Basically, the blame goes to Mommy and Daddy. Mostly Daddy.) But the movie has a documentary, almost lyrical feel in its images of the Midwest—most of the scenes play out in master shot, and convey a strong sense of the plains, a serenity peppered with these bits of unthinkable violence. The most virtuoso performance on hand, though, may come from cinematographer Conrad Hall, whose photography is, at times, just jaw dropping. (Some of this is covered in Visions of Light, which is highly recommended.) One of the great shots of all time comes toward the very end of the movie: Perry offers a jailhouse confession of sorts, on a rainy night. He's got no self pity, but the rain is reflected onto his cheeks, the images of the drops snaking down the window panes refracted onto the murderer, nature providing the tears that Perry himself can't or won't.

Brooks does deserve credit for some novel storytelling strategies, though—he holds out on showing us the worst things that these two have done, and of course our imaginations are more powerful than anything any filmmaker can show us. (It's the old Roger Corman dictum: the scariest shot in movies is a dolly in on a closed door.) Not acquitting himself quite as well is Quincy Jones, who provides a musical score that's full of foreboding and obvious indicating—as with some overblown courtroom rhetoric from prosecutor Will Geer, later of The Waltons, this makes In Cold Blood feel like a rote movie of the week. But at its best, it's a startling tale, and a handful of the images in it are likely to haunt you for a good long while.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Hall's photography generally looks great, with strong blacks and an impressive grayscale. Occasional bits of debris and scratches can be perceived, unfortunately; if the pictures weren't so beautiful, the interference might not be as noticeable, but as it stands, these instances can be a little jarring.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchyes
Dolby Digital
3.0
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The soundtrack is generally pretty clean, but the dynamics can go a little awry from time to time; Jones' score, early on in the film especially, is just way too loud.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring 8 MM, Identity, In a Lonely Place
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:12m:28s

Extras Review: Only chapter stops and trailers, which is a disappointment; the film deserves better, and this seems like a missed opportunity.

Extras Grade: D

 

Final Comments

In terms of style, the film is an odd combination—part Maysles direct cinema, part hokey Dragnet. But much of it is deeply compelling, the story is frequently chilling, and the work by the leading man and the cinematographer are never less than riveting.

 


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