Criterion Corner: In Cold Blood (#781)

I’ve never read In Cold Blood – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Truman Capote. I have seen the two competing films about the writing of In Cold Blood, though, Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006), in which the idiosyncratic author was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones respectively, so I was quite aware of what Capote’s novel, and its 1967 film adaptation, would be about. I was also aware of the whole discourse about the non-fiction novel, the genre that Capote adopted. Did Capote create, or at least shape, the format that we’ve come to know as true crime? Or did he just reflect cultural anxieties and currents that were already forming?

All these thoughts affected how I approached the film adaptation of In Cold Blood, which I’d never seen either. The trailer, which is available as part of the Criterion release, makes it very clear that the film at the time was advertised mainly by stressing its authenticity: look how much these actors look like the actual people they portray, it states emphatically, look how we even filmed in the actual place where the crime happened, how some of the extras are the actual people they portray on film!

Then I started watching the film, and this purported authenticity effect is immediately put in question, because In Cold Blood, adapted for the screen and directed by Richard Brooks, looks and feels very much like cinema. The music by Quincy Jones, the cinematography by Conrad Hall, and especially the editing by Peter Zinner: all of these create an effect that could hardly be further from cinéma verité, at least at the beginning of the film. In Cold Blood looks, sounds and feels stylish and stylised. It uses all the means that movies have at their disposal to shape the material and make the audience think and feel certain things.

Which isn’t to say that this is automatically less realistic, less authentic: arguably, authenticity is first and foremost a style, and it can even be an affectation. Entirely virtual CGI animation sometimes is made to look more like what we expect reality – or rather, filmed reality – to look like, for instance by means of shakycam effects or lens flares, because audiences are trained to think that reality has a certain, specific look. Reality TV and documentaries and all the various genres and formats purporting to depict something real have become omnipresent. In 2021, we even have various competing aesthetics that suggest authenticity; in 1967, I’d expect that the aesthetic wasn’t yet as codified. Regardless of this, though, the first impression that In Cold Blood gave me was that it does not look and feel like non-fiction so much as it does like a thriller, with its beautiful black and white images and its jazzy soundtrack.

And don’t get me wrong: it works. It establishes tone, it serves to add to the characterisation of the two killers, Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson). As portrayed in In Cold Blood, they fantasise about themselves and who they are, and depicting these fantasies in cinematic terms makes sense: these two men would have grown up with movies, they would have seen hardened men and bad guys as depicted by Hollywood stars. In Cold Blood may be an adaptation of what its author termed a non-fiction novel, but that doesn’t carry the same kind of meaning as the word “documentary”. Like so many films based on true stories that follow it, In Cold Blood sets out to be a movie, to tell a story, in ways that are recognisably cinematic.

Which makes it all the more striking when we get to the film’s (surprisingly late) depiction of the murders, and the stylish, stylised aesthetic of the preceding parts is replaced by something much starker. Jones’ score goes silent, the camera work and editing become much more low-key and intimate, and stylistic choices are dictated by the situation: most of the Clutter house is dark, so all we see is the glimpses illuminated by the flashlights the killers-to-be are carrying. The change in style is oppressive, but it is also strangely flat at first (one of the critics interviewed on the extras of the Criterion edition says that there is something almost tedious to it). The film isn’t trying to excite us the way movies generally do, it isn’t trying to get the adrenaline going by the conventional means of thrillers. The film’s score returns later during the extended flashback, but it is quiet, almost subliminal. Brooks and his collaborators forgo more sensationalist stylistic flourishes, and the film very much benefits from this.

Which does leave the question of what difference it makes if a film is (supposedly) non-fiction, either to the filmmakers or the audience. Coming at it from the perspective of 2021, I’d say that the whole “based on a true story” thing has come to mean very little in general, even if it can be meaningful for individual films. Much like in the trailer, it’s supposedly a selling point: this really happened! And therefore it’s important/exciting/true! In Cold Blood makes a great effort to be authentic, but the film doesn’t foreground this authenticity. It’s cinematic in ways that serve the story, and if this means using the conventions of movie thrillers, that’s what it’ll do. When a different, more subdued style is called for, that’s what the film does. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t keenly aware of being set in the real world and talking about things that really happened: In Cold Blood sets out to talk about the world we live in. It is not about itself first and foremost, its intention (if a film can be said to have one) is to make its audience think about certain questions, and it has a distinct point of view. Whether the story that is being told is one that really happened in the (more or less) exact way that is depicted may finally be secondary.

Verdict: If you have any interest in the question of fiction vs non-fiction and how filmmakers handle this, In Cold Blood is well worth watching. Even beyond that, though, it’s a very well crafted film with great black and white cinematography, effective and even audacious editing (that can at times become a bit too clever for its own good, perhaps), and a great, disorienting soundtrack by Quincy Jones. The film also has a strong point of view with respect to crime and punishment, in particular the death penalty; it would make an interesting companion piece to Kieślowski’s Dekalog: Five (or its extended cinema version, A Short Film About Killing). Since violence and killing are such prevalent motifs in cinema, In Cold Blood is a fascinating example of how these can be depicted in ways that are striking and memorable but not sensationalist or desensitising.

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