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In Cold Blood: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // November 17, 2015
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted November 16, 2015 | E-mail the Author

Based on the best-selling novel by celebrated author Truman Capote, Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood (1967) captures a horrific real-life event in painstaking detail, blurring the line between non-fiction and dramatic filmmaking in way most films just weren't---and still aren't---capable of doing. Even those casually familiar with the case, novel, and film are well aware of their progression: after the brutal 1959 slaying of a four-person family in Holcomb, Kansas, Capote (with his close friend Harper Lee, who would finish To Kill A Mockingbird the next year) traveled there to research the case, leading to nearly 10,000 pages of notes and more than enough foundation for his eventual book. The end result was a literary landmark and one of the earliest "non-fiction novels", eventually capturing the interest of maverick director Richard Brooks, who took liberties to obtain complete creative control over his films.

Luckily, In Cold Blood the film doesn't feel much different than In Cold Blood the novel. There are obvious exceptions: condensing 300+ pages into 135 minutes is no easy task, and the primary consequence is that Brooks gives murderers Perry Smith and Richard "Dick" Hickock (played by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson) more screen time than their victims. Substantially more. Does this glorify their actions, sweeping the unfairly shortened lives of Herbert, Nancy, Kenyon, and Bonnie Clutter under the rug? Possibly. But it also reinforces the nature of some crimes as almost completely random: Hickock had been falsely told about $10,000 in cash on the Clutter property by a fellow inmate months earlier, and the subsequent murders likely wouldn't have occurred if Smith wasn't along for the ride. So what we're left with is a film that begins with the setup and goes right to aftermath and investigation, saving all the gory details until the very end. It's a brilliant way to build suspense and, though In Cold Blood appears to dwell too much on Smith and Hickock's post-murder road trip, this makes their eventual fate all the more affecting.

Cinematographer Conrad Hall earned an Oscar nomination for his contributions to In Cold Blood (as did Brooks for his direction and screenplay, and Quincy Jones for his original score), and it's easy to see why. Shot in a black-and-white format usually reserved for documentaries during that era, In Cold Blood is loaded with deep blacks and shadows but well-lit and easy to follow, creating a heightened atmosphere that's aided by Brooks' absolute commitment to detail. Many scenes were shot at their actual locations, including several third-act scenes at Kansas State Penitentiary and those horrific murders at the Clutter house. A handful of minor characters, including four jurors, were played by their real-life counterparts. This was undoubtedly a gamble by director Brooks---after all, most audience members wouldn't know the difference---but, considering Capote's exhaustive novel, authenticity was more important. Nonetheless, it paid dividends: In Cold Blood is usually considered a career highlight for almost everyone involved, and the film was even entered into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry seven years ago.

Not surprisingly, In Cold Blood's technical strengths, human story, and fundamental staying power ensure that it's held up almost perfectly during the last 48 years, even if the gruesome subject matter doesn't make it a film that some will watch more than once. Luckily, Criterion's striking new Blu-ray edition offers more than enough support for the main feature, serving up a terrific A/V presentation (sourced from a new 4K restoration) and a fine collection of new and vintage supplements that easily trumps Sony's DVD and Blu-ray from several years back.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, In Cold Blood looks beautifully gruesome on Criterion's new Blu-ray. I don't have the Sony Blu on hand for a direct comparison, but it's obviously leaps and bounds ahead of their own 2003 DVD. This crisp 1080p transfer (sourced from a new 4K digital restoration) is loaded with detail, texture, and a pleasing amount of grain, while the film's signature deep blacks are represented well with no signs of crush or contrast boosting. Other digital imperfections, including excessive noise reduction and edge enhancement, appear to be completely absent as well. In Cold Blood's stark black-and-white cinematography was intended to resemble that of a documentary; the gamble obviously paid off, with an end result that's as hard to look away from as it is tough to stomach at times. In my opinion, this is one of the studio's best-looking discs of 2015...and that's saying something.

DISCLAIMER: The resized screen captures and stills in this review are decorative and do not represent this title's native resolution.

I wasn't really expecting Criterion to stick with a DTS-HD 5.1 presentation here, even though Sony's Blu offered a similar TrueHD 5.1 mix. I've only ever seen In Cold Blood as a 3.1 presentation (maintained by the DVD)...but whatever the reason for this "improvement", the film makes a fairly smooth transition. In all honesty, I wasn't expecting a presentation as full and dynamic as this; call it prejudice against most 1960s productions and the film's documentary-like ambitions, but there's a strong spread throughout the front channels and a surprising amount of low end at times. Obviously the rear channels don't get a regular workout: for the most part, we only hear a few bits of background ambiance and some occasional support for Quincy Jones' original score. Either way, this is a fine-sounding mix that easily earns passing marks; first-time viewers and seasoned fans alike will be pleasantly surprised.

Menu Design, Presentation, and Packaging

As usual, Criterion's menu interface is easy to navigate with separate options for the chapter listing, timeline, and other supplements. This one-disc set is locked for Region A players; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" case with striking two-sided cover artwork. The fold-out Insert features an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara and technical specs.

Bonus Features

Unlike Sony's barebones DVD and Blu-ray, Criterion's new disc steps up to the plate with a respectable amount of old and new extras, leading off with four 2015 Video Interviews that discuss the film's development and production. Author Douglass K. Daniel (16:59) contributes an overview of director Richard Brooks' career path before, during, and after the film, along with a few stills and candid photos. Cinematographer John Bailey (27:04) speaks about Conrad Hall's award-winning work as director of photography for the film. Film historian Bobbie O'Steen (14:36) discusses editor Peter Zinner and his distinctive style, while film critic and jazz historian Gary Giddins (21:09) analyzes the music of Quincy Jones. Together, they offer a fine amount of second-hand information that fans will appreciate.

Three vintage Interviews are also included; the first features director Richard Brooks (18:25) on a 1988 episode of the French television show Cinema cinemas, as he discusses his career (which had ended three years earlier with Fever Pitch) and the enormous impact of In Cold Blood more than two decades after its theatrical release. The other two interviews are with Truman Capote himself: one tags along with the author on his 1966 visit to Holcomb, Kansas (4:32), while another features him in conversation with NBC's Barbara Walters one year later (9:46).

We're also treated to "With Love from Truman" (29:06), a short 1966 documentary by the celebrated filmmaking team of Albert and David Maysles that features the writer himself just after the release of his best-selling source novel. There's plenty of extremely candid footage to be found here (Capote's eventually all-consuming drug and alcohol problem is evident during a handful of scenes), which provides a uniquely personal portrait of the author during what might be considered the peak of his career. Last but not least is the film's lengthy original Trailer (2:56).

Final Thoughts

Well-crafted and extremely influential, Richard Brooks' adaptation of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is a visceral and affecting drama that replicates a horrific real-life event with exacting commitment to detail. The chilling true story and Capote's source novel provide plenty of room for Brooks' film to breathe, until its final moments when the audience is left gasping for air; I'm always reminded of Akira Kurosawa's excellent High and Low (released four years earlier), both for its methodical examination of criminal pursuit and an effective humanization of "the bad guy". Criterion's terrific Blu-ray meets or beats Sony's 2009 disc with a top-tier A/V presentation and a fine assortment of quality extras, making this an absolute no-brainer for old and new fans alike. Very Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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