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Monday, November 16, 2015

New on Video: The Monochromatic Massacre of In Cold Blood

Posted By on Mon, Nov 16, 2015 at 2:30 AM

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Truman Capote’s bestselling 1966 novel In Cold Blood is a cornerstone of the "true crime" genre, telling the as-true-as-it’s-going-to-get story of the 1959 slayings of the Clutter family in their rural Kansas home by the drifters Perry Smith and Dick Hickox (played by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson in the film version.

Capote conducted a truly staggering amount of capital-R research for the book, including spending a lot of time with Perry and Dick as they awaited execution. The novel was especially groundbreaking in that he wrote it as a narrative rather than a strictly journalistic endeavor, going so far as to call it a "nonfiction novel." This concept angried up a lot of blood at the time, but also resulted in a cultural phenomenon. Richard Brooks’s 1967 film adaptation, which the Criterion Collection is releasing on Blu-ray this week, was no less groundbreaking, but exists as a more singular work.


Director Brooks and cinematographer Conrad Hall created a widescreen, black-and-white opus that plays at times like it might as well be a documentary, without ever feeling fakey the way that modern films that strive for documentary realism often do. The stark black-and-white helps, since it evokes the grimness of film noir, as does the fact that much of the film was shot in the actual locations the real events occurred took place, including the Clutter residence. Yep: they restaged the murders in the murder house itself. Damn. The casting is hella important as well; the original theatrical trailer embedded above emphasizes how much the actors resemble the real-life characters they’re playing.

Nobody questions the amount of research Truman Capote conducted for the book, or that he was able to get so many details right through interviewing people without recording or writing it down at the time (personally, if I forget to bring my notebook to a press screening, I’m screwed), but there’s still a lot of controversy about how much he may have embellished or just got wrong. Oh, the important things are all there, but both the book and the movie are still recreations, and memory is a notoriously fickle thing, particularly with so many people doing the remembering. Case in point is In Cold Blood’s cinematographer, Conrad Hall: what was his nickname?

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In a 2015 interview on the Criterion Blu-ray, modern cinematographer John Bailey says that Hall was nicknamed "the Prince of Darkness" for his use of deep blacks in the film.

Which is all fine and good, except that in the great 1992 documentary Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, Conrad Hall himself refers to fellow cinematographer Gordon Willis as "The Prince of Darkness."  He cites how Willis purposefully underexposed the film in color movies like The Godfather and Annie Hall, which is a different kind of darkness than Hall achieved in the black-and-white In Cold Blood.



So were they both called the Prince of Darkness? I don’t buy it. The nickname makes much more sense for Gordon Willis, considering his similarly moodily-lit work on not just the Coppola and Woody Allen films but also The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, whereas Conrad Hall – great as he is – just doesn’t have that kind of work on his resume. Indeed, when Willis passed away last year, Time’s Richard Corliss titled the obituary "Remembering Gordon Willis, the Cinema’s Prince of Darkness," and credited Hall with giving Willis that nickname.

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If we can’t even decide which cinematographer got which nickname, then it makes it all the more understandable that we may never quite know all the details surrounding the deaths of the Clutter family as retold in both the book and film of In Cold Blood. But at least it makes for some great art.

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Sherilyn Connelly

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