Truman Capote’s book about two young real-life murderers was a shocking bestseller in its day and thought impossible to bring to the screen.
Yet writer/director Richard Brooks did deliver this harrowing movie adaptation, remarkably faithful to its source (Capote had heard the boys’ testimony personally), immaculately photographed in monochrome by master craftsman Conrad Hall.
The film features two relatively unknown actors, Robert Blake (a former child actor) and Scott Wilson, as the youngsters who wiped out the Clutter family during a Kansas robbery on 15 November 1959.
Wilson makes Dick Hickock a thoroughly hateful character, a crook, a brash promoter who plans the murders for robbery but doesn’t have the guts to kill. His big scene, which is most effective, is the hysterical outburst when Kansas Bureau of Investigation chief agent Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe) is trying to get a confession from him.
Robert Blake has wonderful facial expressions as Perry Smith, an aesthete who is well-mannered, reads books, plays the guitar, and has a cleanliness fixation. A paranoiac, Smith keeps his equilibrium until he goes berserk recalling a childhood tragedy.
Hickock selects Smith to be his accomplice, knowing he has killed in a fit of passion and will kill again for profit.
Blake evokes sympathy for Smith when he tries to turn back before the murders and, at the end, when asked if he wants to make a statement, he says he would like to apologise but doesn’t know who to apologise to.
The mood is properly dour and relentless, and the use of the actual locations is superb.
The supporting cast is full of well-known Hollywood players, with the likes of Forsythe, Will Geer and Paul Stewart ensuring that the grim subject matter remains resolutely unsensationalised.
Gerald S O’Loughlin