In Cold Blood
Truman Capote’s best seller, a breakthrough narrative account of real-life crime and punishment, became an equally chilling film in the hands of writer-director Richard Brooks. Cast for their unsettling resemblances to the killers they play, Robert Blake and Scott Wilson give authentic, unshowy performances as Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who in 1959 murdered a family of four in Kansas during a botched robbery. Brooks brings a detached, documentary-like starkness to this uncompromising view of an American tragedy and its aftermath; at the same time, stylistically In Cold Blood is a filmmaking master class, with clinically precise editing, chiaroscuro black-and-white cinematography by the great Conrad Hall, and a menacing jazz score by Quincy Jones.
Richard Brook’s adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood gets a surprise Criterion release, sporting an all-new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation on a dual-layer disc taken from a new 4K restoration sourced from the original negative. Like the previous Sony DVD and Blu-ray editions the film is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
The previous Sony Blu-ray looks really good and I think most will be happy with that edition if they already have it, but there is no denying that this one looks really good as well. The black levels are especially bold and deep, perfectly aiding the wonderful black and white photography. I didn’t feel any details were being crushed out, and shadow delineation is very strong. Contrast looks good and gray levels shift and blend nicely, creating some wonderful, richly detailed landscape shots against the sky. Other than maybe a couple of softer long shots detail is rich, from every pore to every detail on Robert Blake’s leather jacket, creating natural looking textures. Film grain is present but very fine, and its rendered quite naturally.
The digital transfer is really quite good as well. A lot of transfers from Criterion lately have had issues with grain in darker scenes where the image can look a little noisy or blocky but I never noticed this issue at all here. There are a lot of dark scenes in this film and they all remain filmic and natural, and the film grain also remains clean and beautifully rendered. The film also looks to be in excellent shape, and I didn’t notice any blemishes.
It’s a strong image, very sharp and very filmic, beautifully delivering the film’s amazing black-and-white photography.
The film is unfortunately only presented with a remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track, which is a bit irritating to say the least. In terms of overall quality it’s in good shape, and I didn’t notice any background noise, pops, or drops. Dialogue and sound effects are intelligible and clear, if just a bit flat, but this seems to be more a condition of age than much else.
The film’s score (wonderfully composed by Quincy Jones) on the other hand has clearly been remastered and remixed. The music is mixed to fill the surround speakers with noticeable direction and splits, and nice subtle bass. It’s crisp and lively with fantastic fidelity, and it does sound really good. Unfortunately it sounds too good and doesn’t mix well with the other aspects of the track. Dialogue and effects sound so flat and tinny at times, that the score, which is very dynamic in its presentation, actually distracts more than it helps, and there are moments where the music can drown everything else out. The score is great, no doubt about that, but this mix doesn’t really work with the rest of the track and ultimately it can be distracting. I’m disappointed that this is the only option and would have preferred a mono track option (like Criterion’s own Anatomy of a Murder), or even the score on its own in a 5.1 track.
Though I am surprised by the lack of a commentary Criterion does a respectable job in offering an illuminating look at the film and its construction, starting with a new interview with Richard Brooks’ biographer, Douglas K. Daniel. Here Daniel gives a very general overview of Brooks’ career, even getting into his personality on set (he cared about people but wasn’t beyond yelling at people on set to get what he wanted). He then offers a brief overview of the production of the film, mentioning how Brooks even did his own research on the crime and the aftermath outside of Capote’s book. It’s a fine discussion and primer on the director, though is distractingly put together: maybe trying to make it more than a usual talking-heads piece the camera keeps slightly shifting and subtly zooming in and out on Daniel’s head, which adds nothing. Despite that, the 17-minute interview is a good one.
Getting a little more technical is a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey talking about Conrad Hall’s photography. It’s a wonderful 27-minute discussion about the look of the film, with special attention paid to the lighting, which in most cases is natural or comes from a single source. He offers many examples and deconstructions, even looking at how certain characters can be lit a bit differently. I especially liked where Bailey talks about the use of rain on the window in one of the final sequences where Perry talks about his father. It can be very technical but Bailey is very passionate about the subject and obviously admires the look of the film, giving an excellent crash course.
Gary Giddens and Bobbie O’Steen then talk about other aspects of the film’s construction. Giddens spends 21-minutes talking about Quincy Jones’ score, which aims to get in the heads of the characters. Giddens then talks about some of his favourite moments and “riffs” found throughout. O’Steen for 15-minutes covers the film’s editing and the film’s editor, Peter Zinner. She explains how the film’s editing broke new ground, how it gets the audience to focus on certain aspects (usually to foreshadow something), and how the film makes you think you’ve seen horrendous violence when, in reality, it all occurs off screen.
Both features offer a wonderful look at how the music and editing each respectively aid in the film’s narrative. Watching the film it’s easy to get sucked in and overlook how intricately the film has been constructed in these areas and both of the features nicely break these aspects down.
Criterion then digs up a French interview with director Richard Brooks, recorded for Cinéma cinémas in 1988. It’s a fascinating 18-minute discussion in English (with burned in French subtitles) with Brooks explaining his decisions that went into the film, like why he wanted to shoot in black-and-white, why he didn’t want stars, and the conflict this could create with studio executives (amusingly they really wanted Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, which seems so bizarre to me). It’s a great interview.
After Brook’s interview Criterion then focuses on the novel’s author, Truman Capote. Criterion nicely pulls in the 29-minute short film From Truman with Love, directed by David and Albert Maysles, which captures an interview Capote did with a Newsweek reporter. It’s a very engaging piece, nicely capturing the author, as he talks about his novel, In Cold Blood, and goes over his research. He even shares letters from the killers, which you get a sense makes him emotional. There’s also some great footage of him taking detective Dewey and his wife around New York, along with some footage with fans of the novel. It’s an engaging short offering a fairly intimate look at the author, adding great value to this release. It is also presented in 1080p/24hz high-definition, and, despite some damage it looks really good.
Truman Capote in Holcomb, Kansas is less than 5-minutes of footage from a 1966 episode of Today, where Capote revisits the town of Holcomb, recalling his experience there and his research into the novel. The piece also goes over the feelings many of the locals have for the book (some love it, some find it exploitive) and even gets interviews with locals, including detective Dewey. Also accompanying this is an almost 10-minute interview between Truman Capote and Barbara Walters from a 1967 episode of Today, performed around the time of the release of the film version of In Cold Blood. Here he talks a bit about the film and tries to better explain what a “non-fiction novel” is, or what he intended it to be. Walters then fires her usual series of questions at the man and he answers them about as comfortably as he can I assume.
The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer, which really pushes the film’s “authenticity,” and the included insert offers a fairly insightful if brief essay by Chris Fujiwara on the film.
I may have expected more analysis on the actual murder and trial, and maybe a bit more on the novel’s impact, but Criterion still offers a nicely rounded look at the film, its construction, and Capote himself.
The audio is a bit disappointing and I wish Criterion included a mono track, but the video presentation is superb, and the supplements do offer a fairly decent analysis on the film’s construction and as intimate a look at the novel’s author as possible. A nicely put together edition.