In Cold Blood is, of course, based on Truman Capote’s true crime novel of the same name. It was directed by Richard Brooks, who knew Capote and had read early drafts of the book. Otto Preminger wanted to do it, which would actually have saved his career—but Brooks bought the rights for $400,000, which must have been a massive amount for the time. The book had sold a ton of copies, so it was never going to be a big issue getting it to the screen. Brooks interviewed some of the people who lived the story in addition to using Capote’s book during his script-writing process. Brooks’s previous film, The Professionals, had been a big comeback for the director after working on Lord Jim, which was a big flop at the time. Both The Professionals and In Cold Blood were smash hits.
Columbia, which funded the film, created some issues with casting. They wanted Paul Newman and Steve McQueen as murderers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. But Brooks felt that with Newman and McQueen being the biggest stars on the part at that point, they would not be believable, and decided to go for lesser-known actors. There‘s some very ironic casting as a result, with Robert Blake cast as Perry Smith. At that point Blake had been a child actor (and a child abuse victim), had spent some time in the military and fought drug addiction, and had turned down some major parts. His career had taken a steep nosedive, but this was Blake’s adult breakthrough part. He was a dead ringer for Smith, to the extent that in a police line-up, he might have been in trouble.
Jump ahead 34 years later, Blake had his own history with murder, having gotten away with killing his wife (in fact, he was the model for the murderer in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.) However, Blake was fantastic in this film, and this is why he had a moment in the 1970s as a leading man in films like Electra Glide in Blue.
Co-star Scott Wilson had just been in his first film, In the Heat of the Night. Quincy Jones, who contributed the score for both films, recommended him for In Cold Blood, as did Sidney Poitier. Blake is the standout, but both turn in great performances.
The film was difficult to make, with a very long shoot lasting 120 days. It was made on the real locations, for the most part, including using the murdered Cutter family’s house, having compensated the family well. The only place they couldn’t go was the Kansas State Penitentiary. It was shot by Conrad Hall, one of the greatest cinematographers, whose list of credits includes Electra Glide in Blue and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In Cold Blood was shot in black and white, which makes it feel very much like a documentary. It includes a lot of location shots—rare for what is essentially a big Hollywood movie—with expressionist touches, especially in the jail sequences, that takes it in a noirish direction. You could call it an early example of a neo-noir.
The cinematography is so good, and coupled with a great story, a solid director and excellent performances, it all adds up to a strong piece of work. In a way, it’s one of the first “New Hollywood” films, with a gay subtext and a lot of violence. It came out the same year as Bonnie and Clyde, and is just as boundary-pushing as that film (and is probably the better film of the two). It also has the distinction of being the first film rated as “For Mature Audiences,” what then became an R rating.
Criterion’s 4K digital restoration comes packaged with several new interviews including cinematographer John Bailey discussing Hall’s work, film historian Bobbie O’Steen, film critic/jazz historian Gary Giddens on the score, and Douglass K. Daniel talking about Brooks. An archival interview with Brooks; a Maysles brothers’ documentary on Capote, With Love From Truman; two archival Capote interviews, and the trailer round off the extras, along with an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara.