My Favorite Crime Movie: In Cold Blood
As a 14-year-old in 1967, my principal reason for living was marathon listening to Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Distraction arrived at the end of the year in the form of a movie that immediately earned lifelong status as my favorite crime flick. From the standard list of film genres, it also rates near the top of my favorite drama and horror films. The accolades do not stop there. It was based on a book that is one of the best and scariest crime novels ever penned.
I am talking about Truman Capote's literary masterpiece In Cold Blood, and the black-and-white cinematic tour de force of the same name written for the screen and directed by Richard Brooks. It’s rare that both book and film work so magnificently. It happens here largely because both are honest, in depth studies of two soulless men stalking a twisted version of the American dream. The movie’s semi-documentary style is so authentic that at times it seems captured by the omnipresent security cameras we now endure in our post 9/11 world. That’s real. And real is scary.
The opening scene ushers the coming horror with a desperate warning from a muted jazz trumpet as a Kansas City-bound bus barrels straight toward the audience. From that head-on crash into our sensibilities, we’re essentially made accomplices to Dick Hickock’s and Perry Smith’s perverse road trip that unfolds in episodic chiaroscuro. From car, to motel, to roadside toilet, to flashback, and back to car — we witness the slow peeling back of their scorching pathologies.
We do not view the home invasion and quadruple murder until the middle of the film, long after fate has taken us by the hand. When we finally suffer their loathsome deed, it’s a morbidly visual patchwork of our most iconic fear — that of waking to find nervous, whispering men standing in our darkened bedroom. As bystanders, we see the victims grasp that these men are true sociopaths and that they will not live to see morning.
The final third of the film is a prison drama that ultimately delivers the audience a classic catharsis. We journey through our killers’ interrogation, trial, stint on death row, and finally their respective slow walks up the staircase to a hangman nicknamed “We the People.”
Perry Smith’s final words are, “I’d like to apologize, but who to?” The answer is: to us, the spectators of his wasted life. The dramatic soundtrack of his slo-mo execution is age old, but works with ageless theatrical impact: the beat…beat…BEATING of the human heart. It increases in volume. Then fades. Then stops.
I first saw In Cold Blood in Richmond, Virginia, a few weeks after reading the controversial non-fiction novel for extra credit as a high school freshman. Over the years, the film’s capacity to terrify has never dimmed, particularly the eerily transcendent performances of Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as Smith and Hickock. In his original four-star review, Roger Ebert wrote that the two are “so good they pass beyond performances and almost into life.”
Hollywood, too, knew it was important. In Cold Blood was nominated for four Oscars: Best Director, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score for Quincy Jones. It deserved to win all four. The fact that it won none was, itself, a crime. But then, it was up against In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie & Clyde, and Cool Hand Luke. Wow, good for you, 1967. What a great year that was for high quality crime movies!
Gray Basnight’s forthcoming novel, The Dear John File, a thriller centering on discovery of a secret FBI diary revealing historic government crimes, will be published in 2018. The Cop with the Pink Pistol, singled out by Library Journal as Novel of the Month, was published in 2012. Shadows in the Fire ( 2015) is a Civil War historical set in Richmond. Prior to writing fiction, Basnight worked for 30 years in New York City broadcast news as a producer, writer, editor, and reporter.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY — Murder Most Spousal
This is the third in our member-written series: My Favorite Crime Movie.
Despite our fondness for (obsession with?) serial killers, conventional wisdom says one is much more likely to be killed by a spouse than by a total stranger. And statistics say husbands do away with wives more than vice versa. But don't tell that to filmmakers. Much to the consternation of my husband, some of my favorite movies involve wives for whom a simple divorce is just not enough.
Number one on that list for me is Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson. As if those heavyweights were not enough, it was directed by Billy Wilder, with a screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and based on a novella by James M. Cain.
Double Indemnity was inspired by a 1927 murder committed by a New York woman and her lover. Ruth Snyder convinced her husband to take out an insurance policy with a double indemnity clause, which would pay double for an accidental death. Then she talked her paramour into murdering her husband. James Cain was among the journalists attending the trial.
In the film, insurance man Walter Neff (MacMurray) rings the wrong doorbell and lives to regret it when Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) answers. Actually she doesn't answer. The door opens and his first glimpse of the lady of the house is of her standing at the top of the stairs, wrapped in a towel.
No matter how cool Neff plays it — the word "baby" is sprinkled liberally throughout the script — Phyllis is in charge from the moment she walks down those stairs.
"There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour."
"How fast was I going, officer?"
"I'd say about 90."
Who wouldn't want to deliver lines like that? And when did a piece of jewelry (the famous anklet) ever arouse such passion? Walter Neff, for all his hipster, cigarette-smoking, hat-twirling swagger, is toast. And so are we.
Enter the boorish, inconvenient husband. Exit, the husband. It won't really be a spoiler to say that the briefly-seen husband isn't the third member of this noirish triangle. That honor goes to Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Keyes, a fast-talking, no-nonsense claims adjuster who almost married once but called it off after investigating his fiancé's family and finding them disreputable. One of my fave Keyes lines — "Margie. She sounds like she drinks from the bottle." Can any worse be said of a woman? Not to Mr. Keyes.
With his internal "little man" calling the shots, Keyes refuses to believe Dietrichson's death was an accident.
But the plot of the film is almost the least of it. The snappy dialogue laced with innuendo. The camera angles. The 1940s southern California vibe. The cars. Even the crazy blonde wig Stanwyck wears. These two murderous lovers are spiraling toward disaster the minute they meet, and I love every bit of it.
Rosemary Harris is a former president of MWA-NY and of Sisters in Crime New England. She is the author of the Dirty Business mystery series featuring amateur sleuth Paula Holliday.
What I’m Watching Now
If Patricia Highsmith were writing today, she’d surely be the showrunner for one of the great psychological thrillers currently gracing the small screen. We live not just in the golden age of television, but in the golden age of my favorite sub-genre of TV crime show. Call it psychological suspense, domestic noir, or what you will. These shows mine intimate relationships, twisted friendships and illicit domestic arrangements for suspense, horror, dread and thrills. The staggering success of broken-marriage thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, both runaway hit novels that became hit movies, struck a chord and started a trend. That trend continues in a number of fantastic TV shows that I wouldn’t miss, and neither should you.
The best of these, to my mind, are novelistic in scope and structure. In Showtime’s The Affair, a man walks along a dark highway at night and is struck and killed by a car. The next two seasons of this Golden-Globe winning drama move back and forth in time, exploring events surrounding the hit-and-run from the perspectives of Noah and Alison, who are enmeshed in an intense illicit love affair. A dogged detective pursues the lovers, but the viewer doesn’t learn until much later what role Noah and Alison and their life-shattering affair played in the hit-and-run.
Each hour-long episode is divided into two 30-minute segments in which the same events are explored from either Noah’s perspective or Alison’s. (This device is later broadened to include segments told from the viewpoint of Noah’s wife Helen or Alison’s husband Cole.) The shifting POVs not only allow for a deeper dive into the psyches of the main characters, but also pose fascinating questions about the effect of individual viewpoint on memory and truth. Do the differences in point of view and memory mean that somebody is lying – to those around them, to themselves, or both? The novelistic approach is the brainchild of Sarah Treem, an award-winning playwright and one of the great auteur-showrunners of the current TV landscape.
Another not-to-be-missed domestic thriller that garnered huge audiences and critical raves is Big Little Lies (HBO), based on the #1 New York Times bestselling novel by Liane Moriarty. Lies is different in tone from The Affair, but surprisingly similar in structure and subject. Wealthy moms at a tony California elementary school wage an epic battle over which kid is the class bully, who’s invited to a birthday party, and whether a racy puppet show at the community theater should be censored. But on trivia night, somebody dies at the school fundraiser, and things get real. The narrative shifts back and forth in time and unfolds from differing perspectives, as detectives interview witnesses in pursuit of the killer. Each protagonist is hiding something: a troubled past, an explosive secret, a marriage that looks perfect to outsiders but is rife with violence. Lies finds suspense and danger in the everyday lives of women, and in doing so, explores some harrowing truths about domestic violence.
Even political and espionage thrillers are jumping on the domestic-suspense bandwagon these days. Both House of Cards, Netflix’s hit political thriller, and The Americans, FX’s spy drama often referred to as the best show on television, are at their center, stories of a marriage. The love-hate dynamic between the married protagonists in both shows heightens the stakes, and underlies many of the crimes they commit. Intimate relationships give rise to our most intense emotions. Is it any wonder that they can lead to murder?
Michele Campbell is a former federal prosecutor in New York City who specialized in international narcotics and gang cases. A while back, she said goodbye to her big-city legal career and moved with her husband and two children to an idyllic New England college town a lot like Belle River in It's Always the Husband. Since then, she has spent her time teaching criminal and constitutional law and writing novels.
Hitchcock’s Average American Family
This is the second in our member-written series: My Favorite Crime Movie.
Alfred Hitchcock said several times that Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was his favorite of the films he directed. The film is set in Santa Rosa, California. If I tell you that the last time I was in California, I went in search of Santa Rosa, you'll have some idea how much I love this movie. As a Hitchcock fan, I love the movie as a psychological thriller. As an academic researcher who studies crime and American culture, I love its numerous themes – from gender roles and family life to consumerism and murder as entertainment.
Based on a short story, the movie script was a collaboration by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville. A debonair serial killer (Joseph Cotton) decides to shake off the police by visiting his sister and her family. The two police detectives who are pursuing him as one of two suspects in the “Merry Widow” murders, are close behind. They visit the family, posing as survey-takers sent out to interview "average American" families. Charlotte (Teresa Wright) the oldest daughter, soon realizes the men are detectives. Thus begins a tense battle of wits between "Uncle Charlie," the serial killer, and his niece and namesake, "Young Charlie."
When first seen, Charlie is stretched out on her bed in a pose that echoes that of her uncle, on the other side of the country. When her father comes upstairs to check on her, she tells him that their family is in a rut. They do nothing but eat, work, and sleep. She doesn't know what is going to become of them. Her father, a bank clerk, reminds her of his recent raise. Charlie demands to know how he can talk about money, when she is "talking about souls."
Having thought of "just the right person" to come and "shake us all up," she rushes downtown to send her uncle a wire. She learns that he – having read her mind – has sent a wire announcing his arrival. But she is puzzled when he is helped from the train by the porter and a passenger. As the train pulls away, he straightens and strides toward her. She tells him, "I thought you were sick." Of course, he is sick, mentally disturbed. The depth of his illness is revealed during his dinner table rant about wealthy widows as "faded, fat, greedy women."
But in spite of his proclaimed disdain for money, Uncle Charlie has come bearing gifts for his sister’s family. The ruby ring that he gives to Charlie has an engraving that convinces Charlie he is the killer. As her father and next door neighbor, Herb, both crime buffs, discuss how to commit the "perfect murder," Charlie tries to get her uncle out of town before he can destroy her family. Her problem: Uncle Charlie likes Santa Rosa and wants to settle down there. When the other suspect is identified as the killer, Uncle Charlie realizes she is the only one who can unmask him.
—Frankie Y. Bailey
Frankie Y. Bailey is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany (SUNY). Her areas of research are crime history, and crime and mass media/popular culture and material culture. She is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including local histories and books about crime fiction. Her mystery novels feature crime historian, Lizzie Stuart, and police detective, Hannah McCabe. She also has written several short stories. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and criminal justice and a historical thriller set in 1939. Frankie is a past executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime.