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American Cinematographer Magazine

In Cold Blood (1967)
2.35:1 (16x9 enhanced)
Dolby Digital 3.1
Sony Pictures, $24.95

Bonnie and Clyde might have gotten more ink that year, but 1967 brought another nervy true-crime classic into the world: In Cold Blood. Directed by Richard Brooks and shot by Conrad Hall, ASC, the film was based on Truman Capote's groundbreaking "nonfiction novel" of the same name, which tells of a heinous quadruple homicide that was perpetrated in the flatlands of Kansas by two drifters, who were later hanged for the crimes.

Such a lurid tale might have begged for tabloid-color cinematography, but the filmmakers were more interested in exploring the bleak moral landscape surrounding the crime than the crime itself, so they instead opted to shoot In Cold Blood in ashen monochrome. Indeed, Hall surpassed his Oscar-nominated black-and-white work on Morituri (1965) to craft some of the most starkly striking images in contemporary cinema, including what would become the most famous of his lengthy career: Perry Smith (Robert Blake) in close-up, unburdening his soul before his execution as the shadows from a rain-streaked windowpane play over his cheeks like tears. The famously spontaneous cinematographer would later claim that he stumbled upon the inspiration for this peerless visual moment purely by accident.

Brooks invited this kind of serendipity through his insistence on filming at many of the locations where the real events had occurred: the convenience store where Perry and his partner, Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson), had bought the rope and tape used to subdue their victims, the Clutter family; the courtroom where a jury had sentenced them to death after just 40 minutes of deliberation; and even the Clutter house itself, where, according to Capote, two individually affectless personalities merged into one capable of murdering an entire family "in cold blood."

Brooks' strategy has an especially eerie effect in the film's theatrical trailer (included on this DVD), which boasts about the actors' resemblance to their respective characters - and even superimposes their faces over those of the killers to prove the point. Brooks originally wanted Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to play the lead roles, but Blake and Wilson chillingly capture their characters' deadened personalities and complementary moral bankruptcy in a way that two marquee stars might never have managed.

Whether it's a top-lit close-up of Smith's cat's-paw bootsole or a daylight panorama of Hickock winking and hitching rides in the Nevada desert, Hall etches these figures into his widescreen frame with the crystalline detail of a fine lithograph. His daring use of practical-source lighting is evident in the first shot, as two white bus headlights bear down on the title card through a sea of inky blackness. When the two killers stage their midnight break-in at the Clutter home, Hall slashes the scene's dread-soaked darkness with brutal hotspots from knocked-over lamps and moving flashlights. His contrast palette also mimics the story's moral arc: sketchy details about the killers' troubled pasts initially invite audience empathy, but by the time In Cold Blood winds its way to gallows justice, Hall has transformed his exquisite gray-scale portrait into a grim black-and-white boneyard.

Little could diminish such cinematography, and Sony's anamorphic transfer reverently maintains Hall's handiwork, which earned him his third Academy Award nomination. (The cinematographer collaborated with Sony on its restoration of the film just a few years before his death.)

It's a shame, however, that such diligence didn't carry over to the assembly and design of the DVD's supplemental features. The interactive menus are dull and clumsy, and the complete dearth of interesting supplements - aside from an almost-insulting trailer collection that lumps In Cold Blood in with latter-day thrillers such as 8MM and Identity - makes one pine for a reissue by the Criterion Collection.

Still, In Cold Blood speaks plenty for itself, not just as an unsettling reflection of "a generation both repelled and attracted by violence," as the trailer puts it, but also as an example of cinematographic excellence that has rarely been equaled in the 36 years since its release.

- John Pavlus

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.