Thursday, February 19, 2009

In Cold Blood: A 1967 Film Worth Watching

Clutter Family Coffins Awaiting Burial
Over last weekend I watched the 1967 movie “In Cold Blood,” based on the nonfiction novel by Truman Capote. It was about two petty criminals, Perry Edward Smith and Richard Eugene Hickock, who murdered the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas on November 15, 1959. The dead included the mother, the father, their son and daughter. For this crime Hickock and Smith reaped a haul of $43, or $10.75 per life taken. The two idiots thought that Mr. Clutter had a safe in his office filled with money. He didn’t.  They later made much better money selling goods they had purchased with bad checks.

The fools were soon caught, tried and convicted after confessing to the crimes. They were sentenced to death and were hanged in Kansas on April 14, 1965.

The story was very compelling. I had heard of it before but was never interested in learning the story. The black and white movie, however, just grabbed me.

I have been reading about Hickock and Smith on the internet, their crime and their execution. I saw photos of both men (Smith is on top, Hickock on the bottom); I saw a photo of the gallows where they were hanged, placed in the corner of a prison warehouse and referred to, appropriately, as “the corner.” It had 13 steps leading up to the platform.

Before being led to the corner, however, the men were held in a waiting room with tables and chairs where they could smoke, wearing their execution harnesses while waiting to be processed. That’s how the whole procedure seemed to me: as a bureaucratic processing procedure, like standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles to fill out paperwork and get a driver’s license. Unlike the DMV, however, the Kansas State Department of Corrections was coldly efficient. From the standpoint of the condemned prisoner, that’s probably best. Get it over with fast.

I read about the leather harnesses the condemned men wore, so their hands could be bound to their waists with chains, preventing use during the execution, and the leather restraining belt tied around their ankles to keep them from blocking their fall through the trap door. The men flipped a coin to see who would die first, and Hickock “won.” He went first, followed by Smith a half an hour or so later. The 1967 film ends with Smith, harnessed and hooded, plunging through the trap door and bouncing at the end of the rope. It was a realistic and horrifying scene (see video clip below). The fall breaks the victim’s neck, but he doesn’t usually die immediately; it often takes 15 to 20 minutes for his heart to quit beating and for him to be declared dead. The neck break, however, renders the victim unconscious and it is believed he is conscious of nothing after that. No one knows for sure, of course, except the dead men, and they aren’t talking.

I even saw photos of the graves at Hickock and Smith are buried side by side in Kansas. They both have the same date of death: April 14, 1965. The efficiency and uniformity of their deaths extends even to the grave.

The warehouse where the executions were carried out had a tin roof, dim lighting and smelled musty. On the night of their execution a rainstorm drummed on the roof overhead and the last thing either of them ever heard was the sound of rain.

I don't feel sorry for Hickcock or Smith. They deserved their fate. They tied up a family of four and executed them with shotgun blasts to the head. Hanging was too good for them.

Still, the whole business of capital punishment is a bit ghastly. It really makes you think.
Photograph: The Clutter family's four coffins at their funeral in 1959.

See video clip of Prosecutor's closing argument in the trial of Hickcock and Smith, filmed in the original courtroom where the real trial took place.  

Video clip below:  Movie scene, the hanging of Perry Smith.


Bryan Ross said...

If you haven't read the book, do it now. There is a tv miniseries that might interest you and two films about the writer of the book (Capote and Infamous with the latter being the better film in my opinion). I am currently doing a research essay on the subject and would highly recommend doing a little more research into it as it is both entertaining and intriguing.

Stogie said...

Bryan, I did read the book and it was excellent!