Thanks to Quincy Jones’s jangling, nervy jazz score, it’s immediately clear that something bad is coming in this re-released 1967 adaptation of the Truman Capote true-crime thriller. Coyly, the film initially skips over the murders of the law-abiding, peaceful Clutter family and the focus instead is on their two killers, Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson). These disturbed young fools struggle with violent desires in the shadow of violent upbringings, and dream of a big score. The getaway from their robbery-gone-wrong at first seems clean, but as the authorities start to close in, the killers’ recklessness soon betrays them.
Director Richard Brooks gives the film an almost documentary-like feel, shooting the suspects’ arrival in court just as a TV reporter might and using many real locations. That detail is enhanced with an elegant noir composition and Conrad Hall’s crisp, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, which gives this a chilly, antique air. As the hangman looms, the realistic tones fade and the film becomes a little too mannered, heavily signposting Capote’s message that Smith and Hickock may not be the only murderers here, and certainly not the most cold-blooded. But despite this late stumble, however, this crime classic retains a tragic and terrible power, 50 years on.