04 November 2008

Film Journal: In Cold Blood (1967)


The issue that is most prevalent in In Cold Blood is the disintegration of the American family. This is expressed primarily through Brooks' examination of Dick and Perry and their psyche, but also through certain comparisons made between the past and present American society and culture.

The film opens with the ominous Perry in the shadows of a public bus who is discovered by a young blond girl. Immediately, the idea of anonymity in a crowd is presented - anyone on that bus could be a killer, we just happen to know it's Perry. This idea is later reinforced through a scene in which a character (psychiatrist? cop?) who has read a profile of senseless murderers answers the question of who could fit such a profile by pointing his finger out the window and saying, "Take your pick." Dick and Perry are seen in a crowd of people walking in the street, again suggesting that even though we know who the killers are, it could really be anybody.

It could be anybody because the profile that is read is really vague enough to fit the description of really anybody: sexual inadequacy, raised by single parent or no parents, inferiority complex, etc. Brooks examines the ways in which Dick and Perry specifically fit that criteria not as singular, unique individuals, but as representatives of a larger whole, which could be interpreted as modern society and a new generation.

Dick and Perry are largely presented as the sons of fathers, a generation apart - a pivotal generation, it seems, which largely clashes with the old. The exploration of the past against the present seems to be present in all of the works we have been exploring by Brooks: in Blackboard Jungle it is the rebellious youth against Dadier the adult, in Catered Affair it is the split between the parents and children, in The Professionals it is the Old West vs. the New West. In In Cold Blood, I would suggest Brooks is dealing with those same elements. He gives much attention to Perry's cowboy father whose values and traditions do not fit with Perry the artist. Similarly, the nostalgic feeling for America's pioneer past is ironically commented upon by Kansas, the heartland of America, being the setting of the murder and Las Vegas, a symbol of the decadence of the modern age that displaces the desert wilderness, is where Dick and Perry get caught.

The ineffectual parenting of both Dick and Perry's fathers seems to largely influence their behavior. Perry's act of violence against the Mr. Clutter could even be seen as a misdirected form of revenge towards his father, whose image appears before he kills him. The characterization of the Clutter family is made as vanilla as possible; they appear as a Leave It to Beaver-type of '50s family who embodies the American ideal. Their death by the hands of Dick and Perry could possibly suggest how that type of family can no longer exist as it is destroyed by the new generation. For all we know, the Clutter son who secretly smokes in the garage could have ended up somewhat like Dick or Perry had he lived.

I believe the characterization of the past and past values is somewhat more complicated than in Brooks' previous films. While the Old West is nostalgically embodied by the professionals of The Professionals, the Old West of In Cold Blood, as embodied by Perry's father, is seen as empty, violent, and destructive. Thus, though Dick and Perry kill the Clutters who represent the past nuclear family, their actions are a result from the past which is embodied by their fathers. Thus, though Dick and Perry can be seen as breaking away from the past, their actions can largely be seen as a continuation of it, a continuation of what their fathers have done to them. There is ultimately not as clear a split between the past and goodness.

Dick and Perry can even be seen as the new nuclear family, to again contrast the Clutters. They are a family not united by blood or lineage, but through a common neglect of their fathers and older generation and through a disenfranchisement with their values. As Dick and Perry travel they often talk to each other in affectations similar to a married couple: Dick often uses words like "baby" or "honey"; Dick says "the family that sticks together lives together" when talking about how he and Perry should never split; and eventually Dick even mentions how they have run out of money from having to pay the bills for groceries and gasoline. Dick and Perry are the new American dysfunctional family.

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