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When we think of the worst mass murders in American history, the first ones that usually come to mind are: the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by Charles Manson and his "family" in Los Angeles in August 1969; the slayings of 33 young men and teenage boys by John Wayne Gacy in Des Plaines, Illinois during the 1970s; and the killings of eight student nurses by Richard Speck in Chicago in July 1966.
Almost forgotten today is another mass murder that occurred years before any of the ones mentioned above. On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, an entire family was slain by two young men who had driven 400 miles across the state of Kansas in order to rob the family of a rumored large sum of cash.
Herb Clutter, 48, a prosperous farmer, his wife Bonnie, 45, and two of their two teenage children, Kenyon and Nancy, perished at the hands of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock sometime in the early morning hours of November 15, 1959. Herb and 15-year-old Kenyon had been taken to the basement of their comfortable ranch-style home, where they were bound and shot at close range with a shotgun. Herb had also had his throat cut. Bonnie and 16-year-old Nancy were brutally shot to death in their beds, also with a shotgun.
The slayings of Herb Clutter and his family gained national attention as the result of a New York Times news article published the day after the murders. That news story eventually led author Truman Capote to research the crime and write a book about it. Entitled In Cold Blood, Capote's book is a compelling account of how Smith and Hickock broke into Herb Clutter's house and killed him and his entire family; and of how these two mass murderers were eventually brought to justice. In Cold Blood became a huge best-seller and spawned an entirely new genre of literature: the "non-fiction detective novel." Capote's book became the basis for the 1967 movie, also entitled In Cold Blood.
The film In Cold Blood, starring Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart, and Gerald S. O'Loughlin, is a superbly crafted movie that's part murder mystery, part police procedural, part crime thriller, and always truly outstanding entertainment.
The story opens focused on our two killers - Perry Smith (played by Blake) and Dick Hickock (played by Wilson). Smith, recently released from a Kansas prison, has just violated the terms of his parole by re-entering the state of Kansas. He is short, stocky, and suffers from constant pain after having both of his legs shattered years earlier in a motorcycle accident. He is volatile, violent, and has a menacing personality. His partner in crime is Dick Hickock, also a paroled ex-convict. He's much more extroverted, a smooth talker... and in possession of a plan to rob and murder a wealthy Kansas farmer.
On the night of November 14, 1959, Smith and Hickock begin a 400-mile trip by automobile across the plains of Kansas to the tiny village of Holcomb, where Herb Clutter owns and operates the River Valley Farm. Hickock and Smith plan to force Clutter to open his safe so they can steal what they believe is a large sum of cash. They then plan to kill everyone in the house. The two men arrive at the Clutter home at around 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 15...
Later that morning, the Clutters' neighbors arrive to pick up Nancy and drive her to church. When nobody answers the doorbell, the neighbors go inside, where they discover the grisly results of Smith and Hickock's earlier visit...
Local and state law enforcement agencies quickly respond. Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) agents Alvin Dewey (played by John Forsythe) and Harold Nye (Gerald S. O'Loughlin) are assigned as the lead investigators in the case. Dewey is a local resident and a personal friend of Herb Clutter's. With meticulous care, he and his team of investigators begin the task of searching for clues to the identity of whoever murdered the Clutter family. They are hampered by the lack of forensic evidence left behind by the killers.
Meanwhile, Smith and Hickock are on the run throughout the southwestern United States. They venture into Mexico for a while in pursuit of Smith's grandiose dream of finding Cortes' sunken treasure. Tension mounts between the two killers as they hear radio reports of the manhunt on for them, and as their already dire financial conditions worsen.
After weeks of frustration, Alvin Dewey's investigators finally catch a break in the case. A prison inmate, who had once shared a cell with Hickock, tips off the KBI that Hickock had revealed to him his plan to rob and kill the Clutters...
How do Dewey and his team of investigators finally track down and capture Smith and Hickock? What mistakes do the killers make that lead to their arrest? What really happened at the Clutter house on November 15, 1959? And what finally happens to Perry Smith and Dick Hickock after their arrest? Watch In Cold Blood to find out!
In Cold Blood is a masterfully made movie in nearly every respect, with superior acting, writing, and cinematography, and high production values. It is, by today's standards, a true police procedural, featuring, as it does very effectively, many scenes showing how Alvin Dewey's team of agents employed modern investigative techniques and forensic evidence to bring their suspects to justice.
Robert Blake brilliantly and effortlessly brings to life the diminutive, psychopathic Perry Smith's emotional instability and violent tendencies. Scott Wilson, before this a little-known actor, is equally brilliant as the garrulous, ingratiating, but equally violent and sociopathic Dick Hickock. John Forsythe and Gerald S. O'Loughlin bring just the right touch of restrained righteous anger to their roles as Agents Alvin Dewey and Harold Nye.
Writer/director Richard Brooks' screenplay is written with intelligence and great respect for the facts of the Herb Clutter murder case. Although In Cold Blood contains very few action scenes, it still manages to maintain a high level of tension throughout its 2¼-hour running time. Brooks' choice of filming In Cold Blood in black and white rather than in color was a masterstroke. That, coupled with Conrad Hall's expert cinematography, gives the film a brooding darkness that heightens the sense of 1950s realism.
MY VERDICT: In Cold Blood is an outstanding film, and one of the finest true crime movies ever written. It accurately brings to life one of the most harrowing and now nearly forgotten criminal cases in American history. It's brilliantly acted, written, and produced, and a "must-see" for anyone interested in a great true crime story!
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older