1967 gave us two of the best true-crime flicks of all-time in “Bonnie and Clyde” and this Richard Brooks (“Blackboard Jungle”, “The Professionals”) film which must’ve shocked the hell out of audiences at the time with its almost docudrama approach. However, it’s more ‘realistic’ than ‘detached’. Even today, it’s still pretty startling and damn impressive, but aside from this and “Bonnie and Clyde” the only film I can think of that is as thematically violent is Peter Bogdanovich’s minimalist “Targets”, about an amateur sniper’s murder spree. In fact, this film and “Targets” might well be the first films to depict violent, disaffected youth that I can think of, in any really serious manner.
The only thing that really dates the film is the jazzy, Oscar-nominated music score by Quincy Jones (“In the Heat of the Night”, “The Wiz”), which although giving the film a pulse, is far too intrusive and insistent. Otherwise, this film could almost play in cinemas today, though the violence is perhaps a bit too tame for today’s bloodlust crowd. Hell, most of the crime movies of the last thirty or so years in some way owe a lot to this film and/or “Bonnie and Clyde”. This one plays like a road movie at times, so you’ll probably have “Natural Born Killers” and “Kalifornia” in mind at least, while watching this.
Based on a Truman Capote book (which later became the subject of two Capote biopics), this is stark (though still stylish at times), brooding stuff, with Oscar-nominated B&W cinematographer Conrad Hall (“The Professionals”, “Cool Hand Luke”, “American Beauty”) making the Midwest bleak, doom-laden and unsettling. Hell is on its way to doom a nice, Midwestern family, and we’re powerless to stop it. Yes, light, shadow and (especially) rain are wonderfully used by Hall, but not in any showy or pretentiously Expressionistic way that take you out of the harsh, no-nonsense reality of this grim story. It ain’t “Night of the Hunter”. In fact, the use of shadows creates tension. The artiest shot of the whole film has rain reflected onto Robert Blake’s face like tears, but it’s such a masterstroke that you don’t mind (And apparently it was a happy accident anyway. I’m not sure if I really believe that, but nonetheless it works). The finale is disturbingly matter-of-fact, and must’ve been startlingly real and confronting for audiences of the time. It still packs a wallop, as does the film itself.
The story and cinematography are excellent, but the film would be so much lesser if not for the performances, especially the two central ones from Scott Wilson and Robert Blake as two criminals with very different temperaments. I mean, just take a look at how differently they react to their eventual situation. One is cocky and defiant, the other mixed-up but clearly frightened. Blake gets most of the critical attention for his brooding, Brando-esque performance as the very complex and screwed up Perry Smith. The funny thing is, I was more gripped by Wilson’s performance the first time I saw this, and only on this viewing occasion did Blake’s work really grab my attention. The guy’s a tortured mess, and I wouldn’t mind betting Blake himself is a pretty complex guy too (not that I’m casting any aspersions of course). Blake’s Perry keeps you constantly on edge because he seems so unpredictable. At times, especially during the murders, he seems to be off in his own demented little world. The man is out of his gourd very early on. He has an especially disturbing line where he talks about how nice one of the victims was...right up until he cut his throat. Wow. Also, we learn very early on about his fear/hatred of nuns, and it just about says it all. This is a juvenile delinquent grown up unreformed and turned even worse. Scott Wilson, in my view was robbed of an Oscar-nomination (and a better career, for that matter) for his turn as the more outwardly charismatic and charming of the two, Dick Hickcock. Were the Academy asleep at the wheel? Make no mistake, though, Hickcock’s charisma is that of a cheap hustler. And an unrepentant, amoral sociopath to boot. Also, take note of how Hickcock always calls Perry ‘honey’ and ‘baby’. I don’t believe this is meant to suggest homosexual leanings, so much as Hickcock is making sure to assert his dominance over Perry. Hickcock is clearly the alpha male of the two, though with Perry’s instability, Hickcock might not be the brightest spark when it comes to choosing a suitable mate for a killing spree. Or is he?
Although the two leads dominate proceedings, there are other fine performances in the film. John Forsythe (but you can call him ‘Charlie’) and Paul Stewart are well-chosen in two of the most thankless roles. I don’t think Forsythe was ever a great actor, but he and Stewart have got the right matter-of-fact delivery and no-nonsense vibe to them that lends itself well to this realistic picture. Forsythe gets one particularly great speech towards Stewart about newspapers and how they treat the police, somewhat hypocritically. Cinema hard-arse Charles McGraw has a very interesting, small role as Perry’s dad. In an early scene, he shows off some sensitivity, if naiveté about his son. However, this account is later clouded (to put it mildly) in a flashback of Perry’s where no matter what his wife’s faults may have been, McGraw is shown to be a brutish man. This second scene makes McGraw’s first scene all the more impressive. Jeff Corey also turns up as Hickcock’s genuinely naive father, unaware that his surface-level charmer of a son is really a soulless killer and manipulator. Also, look out for Will Geer as a prosecutor. It’s a tiny role, but Geer’s a good actor whom I always enjoy seeing.
I rather liked the no-name quality of the actors cast as the intended victims, which helps with the realism (and it means Brooks can put more emphasis on his area of interest: the killers). However, this is undercut somewhat by how unafraid and emotionless they seem during the crime. They don’t even seem stunned, and although this apparently comes from the book, one must remember that this is the account as told by one of the crims. It ringed false to me. It is still amazing, however, just how shockingly stupid and pointless the crime proves to be. This ain’t no romanticised “Bonnie & Clyde” lark in the slightest (even if you believe Capote had a thing for Smith, as the film “Capote” seemed to strongly suggest). It’s a film about a shocking, inhumane, and stupid crime, and an anti-capital punishment film at the same time. And it’s definitely a film you should see at least once in your life.