In Cold Blood is still the reigning champ of true crime dramas because of a simple reason: It manages to extract drama and emotion out of a fairly straightforward journalistic approach. The narrative sticks pragmatically close to the rules of a dry procedural, with every fact of the real life case brought to the audience in chunks of information devoid of any dramatic fat.
Yet that's the reason why Richard Brooks' bleak black & white masterpiece captures the undeniable humanity beneath one of the most despicable and sickening acts a human being can execute. It forces the audience to sympathize with the killers, find something familiar and relatable within them, instead of painting them as soulless monsters we can feel superior to. Even though they are the perpetrators of a heinous crime, a crime that the film doesn't flinch away from detailing during its horrendously grim final act, Perry (Robert Blake) and Dick (Scott Wilson) are framed as tragic figures, people who have made all the wrong choices in life, choices that eventually ended up destroying a good family.
Brooks came up to the world of feature filmmaking from a career in journalism, and his obsession with realism as he put together an adaptation of Truman Capote's true crime bestseller, from using the actual house of the victims to real life evidence used as props, infuses his film with an eerie docudrama feel that's very hard to shake. The film carries the dramatic heft of old Hollywood while being creative and hip enough to serve as a part of that bridge that led into the grittier, more adult, and more daring 1970s American cinema. In fact, it was just as responsible for building that bridge as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were.
The performances by the two leads are pitch perfect. Spare me the usual jokes about Robert Blake being able to flawlessly capture the soul of a killer, since he was accused of murder decades later. Regardless of what you think about the man, Blake presents a performance of a lifetime here, capturing the true tragedy of the character.
In Cold Blood's crew is a veritable dream team of talented artists on top of their game. Legendary DP Conrad Hall creates a true BLACK and WHITE look for the film, with exquisite framing that bathes in stark contrasts. With In Cold Blood, Hollywood's love affair with using jazz scores for crime dramas reaches its peak, thanks to Quincy Jones' sublime jazz score. The editing by Peter Zinner was revolutionary at the time for his use of match cuts and non-linear touches.
It's tricky to perfectly transfer In Cold Blood to the digital realm because of the high amount of contrast and grain I mentioned above. That's why it's essential for fans to get their hands on the Criterion Blu-ray, since the 1080p transfer does the film the justice it deserves. The lossless DTS 5.1 surround audio track is essential to truly enjoy Quincy Jones' score. The extras find a great balance between the new (2015 interviews with film experts and historians delving into the many different aspects of the production) and the old (Vintage interviews with Capote). For fans of the film and fans of true crime dramas in general, this Blu-ray is a revelation.
In Cold Blood is currently available from Criterion in Blu-ray and DVD: