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Literature / In Cold Blood

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"As long as you live, there's always something waiting; and even if it's bad, and you know it's bad, what can you do? You can't stop living."

"I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat."
Perry Edward Smith

Considered by somenote  to be the Trope Codifier for the non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood was written by Truman Capote and originally serialized in The New Yorker in late 1965 before getting published in book form the following year.

It tells the story of Perry Edward Smith and Richard "Dick" Hickock, two recently-paroled convicts in 1959 Kansas. While in prison, Hickock had learned from a cellmate named Floyd Wells about a farmer that the latter had worked for named Herb Clutter. According to Wells, Clutter kept a safe in his house with lots of cash inside. So, Smith and Hickock decide to rob the place in the dead of night, Leave No Witnesses by means of a Family Extermination, then head down to Mexico with the money. And that's just what they do. Except for one small thing: there is no safe.

Capote frist read about the massacre in The New York Times. Intrigued, he pitched the idea of writing about it to New Yorker editor William Shawn, then traveled to Kansas, where he was able to interview both Smith and Hickock shortly after their arrest. Assisted by his friend and fellow writer Harper Lee (of To Kill a Mockingbird fame), Capote got a lot of additional info from local residents and law enforcement officials, eventually turning up enough material to expand his intended article to book length.

In Cold Blood was adapted into a well-regarded 1967 film, directed by Richard Brooks and starring Robert Blake as Smith and Scott Wilson as Hickock, and then again as a 1996 television miniseries starring Anthony Edwards as Hickock and Eric Roberts as Smith. The story of its creation was told twice within a year: first as Capote in 2005, and then as Infamous in 2006.

This work contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Perry's mother had a severe case of alcoholism and a tendency to bring home men whom she would then have sex with right in front of her children. Perry's father would have killed him if the shotgun hadn't misfired.
  • Affably Evil: While Smith is twitchy with barely-suppressed rage, Hickock is a cheerful, affable murderer.
  • All for Nothing: The safe full of money that Floyd Wells claims that the Clutters keep turns out to be a lie.
  • All There in the Manual: The movie cuts out a lot of material from the book. For example, Perry's acrimonious relationship with his sister Barbara is covered quite a bit in the book, yet never gets mentioned in the film. Perry and Dick's adventures in Mexico, also a topic of many pages in the book, is omitted and left at two brief scenes in a hotel room.
  • Artistic License History: Bonnie was the last one killed, not Nancy.
  • Attempted Rape: Dick is beginning to come on to Nancy Clutter during the home invasion, but Perry prevents it from going any further.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Sue and Nancy speak briefly in French: [Nancy: "C'est nes possibe. ("I can't")/ Sue: "Pourquoi, cherie? ("why not, dear?")] Nancy's French is slightly incorrect (it should be "ce n'est pas possible"). This could be intentional by the screenwriter, as Nancy was a high school girl in her first year of French.
  • Call-Back: In the film, Perry tells about his rather odd fantasy of a giant yellow bird saving him from the abusive nuns at his school. When they're getting arrested, Dick says "Hey, Buddy, put in a call for that big, ol' Yellow Bird!"
  • The Charmer: Dick can be quite charming, outgoing and personable, as opposed to Perry, who broods and says little to anyone other than Dick.
  • Con Man: Dick is a natural. He is so adept at check fraud that he can talk the merchant into giving him money on top of merchandise with a hot check.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Wells happens to mention a chance one-season employment to the wrong inmate.
  • Death Row: Hickock and Smith find themselves in here after they're convicted of the Clutter murders.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: By 1967, when most movies were being made in color, making this one in black and white was a deliberate artistic choice.
  • Ephebophile: Dick Hickock. Perry even speculates that Nancy was "probably the real reason" he chose the Clutter farm for the robbery.
    • Later in the book he attempts to seduce a 12-year-old girl on the beach, until Perry steps in.
  • Epigraph: An excerpt from La Ballade des Pendus (the Ballad of the Hanged) by François Villon.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Hickock's sole regret out of the entire Clutter affair seems to be how it's harmed his mother and father, who he thinks brought him up fine and never treated him wrong in his life.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Smith may be a mass-murderer, but he's disgusted by Hickock's attempt to rape Nancy Clutter during the home invasion.
  • Expy: Jensen is obviously Truman Capote. However, he is portrayed as any generic reporter, without Truman's odd mannerisms.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Dick Hickock greets his captors and mounts the scaffold with grim dignity, never betraying any fear or despair.
  • Family Extermination: What happens to the Clutter and Andrew families.
  • Flashback: A flashback in the film to Smith as a child, with his family at the rodeo.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Clutter and his family are killed.
  • For Want of a Nail: The entire mess, which killed six people in the end (four murders, two executions), was all due to a stupid scheme to rob a safe that never existed. Not only that, Nancy dies because she declines a friend's invitation to spend the night.
  • Funny Background Event: In Dick's cell, he scrawled "THIS WAY OUT," pointing to the latrine.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The Clutter daughter turns out her lamp. . .and the next thing we see are their friends arriving to pick them up for church. All we hear is one of them screaming upon discovering the bodies.
    • Even when it flashes back to the murders, we hear the gunshots, but never see the results.
    • Averted in the 1996 miniseries: we see Nancy's body exactly as Sue finds her: in bed, with her brains splatted against the wall.
    • Completely averted with Perry's execution.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: Rain hitting the window in the movie as Perry Smith sums up his sad life.
  • Imagine Spot: Perry, a would-be guitarist and singer, imagines himself playing a Las Vegas show.
  • Instant Mystery, Just Delete Scene: It starts with the killers arriving at the Clutter farmhouse, and then goes to the aftermath. It goes back in time to explain why it happened.
  • Irony: If Nancy would have accepted Sue's invitation to stay over at The Kidwell House, she would have survived.
  • Kick the Dog: Or more accurately, Run Over The Dog. While in Mexico, Dick sees an emaciated dog and runs over it with his car. He claims that it's a Mercy Kill, but his extremely apparent glee and excitement about it afterwards belies his true mental state.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: While on Death Row, Hickock considers Smith to be this. Despite Smith's "million dollar words", Hickock claims that he's just as dimwitted as himself. He further claims that Smith despises the other mass-murdering inmate, Lowell Lee Andrews, because Andrews actually had an education at the University of Kansas and makes Smith look stupid by comparison.
  • Leave No Witnesses: Dick repeatedly says that there needs to be "no witnesses" after they rob the Clutters, fearing that they might testify against them if they're caught. This is what leads to the Clutters' deaths and the resulting fallout.
  • Match Cut: Several in the movie, as when Perry tossing a cigarette off a bridge is followed up by the cops dropping a magnet over a bridge in an attempt to find the murder weapons.
  • Moral Myopia: Both Smith and Hickock feel they are treated unjustly by the townsfolk and the prosecution during the trial, but neither expresses any regret about killing the Clutters.
  • No Dead Body Poops: Averted. One of the killers begs to be allowed to use the bathroom before his hanging because he doesn't want this to happen. His executioners tell him it's going to happen anyway—"They all do it."
  • Oh, Crap!: When Dewey shows Dick the bloody footprint and matching boot, he knows the jig is up.
  • The Perfect Crime: In Hickock's words, they thought their plan would be "a cinch, the perfect score."
  • Pet the Dog: The two killers genuinely bond with the little boy and his grandfather who they pick up, stopping to gather bottles, singing with him, and even fairly splitting the profits from the bottle collection.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Both Hickock and Smith frequently call African-Americans "niggers", and once refer to a Chinese restaurant as a "Chink restaurant". This could be attributed to the setting being 1950s America, but there's a passage about how Holcomb welcomes everyone regardless of race (among other things) and the town is home to a well-liked Japanese family, while the narration refers to African-Americans with the then-acceptable "Negros".
  • Precision F-Strike: The relaxing of censorship standards by 1967 with the death of The Hays Code led to this being the first American film to use the word "bullshit".
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Perry Smith has nothing but distaste for Dick when he tries to rape Nancy Clutter.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Dick gives a very blunt and cruel one to Perry in Mexico. He shatters Perry's fantasy of their "quest" to find lost Spanish Gold from some silly phony "treasure maps" and tells him to grow up.
    • Also serves as a bit of a Wham Line: there IS no "plan," and no prospects to get them out of their current predicament (broke, wandering, homeless and wanted by the law).
  • The Remake: The film was remade in 1996 as a TV Movie, which was far more faithful to the book.
  • Sex in a Shared Room: Played for Horror in Perry's Freudian Excuse, which involved his mother having sex with men in front of him and their other kids.
  • Shown Their Work: The film was shot at the actual locations, including the actual Clutter house. The pictures on the walls are of the real Clutters.
  • Spanner in the Works: When hitchhiking through America, Dick and Perry find themselves in the car with a lone salesman going to Omaha. Just as they're about to rob and kill the man, he pulls over for a black hitchhiker, forcing them to continue acting congenial for the rest of their ride and sparing the salesman's life.
  • Tempting Fate: Hickok, in the tradition of all dumb Vegas gamblers, proposes to Smith that they gamble their last $5 into a stake that will get them out of town. He says "I feel real lucky tonight." Immediately after those words escape his lips, they're pulled over by a cop, which eventually results in them being arrested for the Clutter murders.
  • True Crime: Credited with establishing the modern form of the Genre.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Floyd Wells. It all wouldn't have happened if he had kept his mouth shut about the safe.
  • Villain's Dying Grace: When he knows he and Dick are cooked, Smith changes his confession to include the fact that he murdered all the Clutters, not Dick. This is mostly done because he thinks Dick's parents are good people that shouldn't have to live with the fact that their son is a killer.
  • Villainous Rescue: Smith saves Nancy Clutter from being raped by Hickock. Turns out to be subverted, however, when Smith eventually kills Nancy like the rest of her family.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole: Inverted. A major reason the police have so few clues early on is because everyone likes the Clutters, giving them no motives to investigate.
    Of all the people in the world, the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered.