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‘Cold Blooded’ Reexamines the Clutter Family Murders and the Nearly-Forgotten Victims Themselves
November 18, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Call it the last and cruelest indignity: becoming a bit player in your own murder.

Cold Blooded, a two-night, four-hour documentary that premieres at 9 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday on Sundance, raises that specter in the November 1959 murders of the Herbert Clutter family (top) in rural Kansas.

The Clutter murders stunned their small community and troubled the nation at a time when Americans had not yet been semi-numbed by media frenzy around multiple mass killings.

Farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife Bonnie and their two youngest children Nancy and Kenyon were bound, gagged and executed with a shotgun late on the night of Nov. 15. There was initially no sign of the perpetrators and no clue who they might be.

It was the ultimate nightmare: psychopathic killers invading the home of innocent strangers, executing them without mercy, and vanishing.  

While Richard Hickock (right) and Perry Smith (below) were nailed less than two months later and quickly confessed, there had been plenty of time for widespread fear to marinate.  

Hickock and Smith were ultimately executed, but not before Truman Capote had chronicled their depressing and chilling stories for his seminal true-crime novel In Cold Blood.

Drawing on a relationship he had developed with the killers, Capote wrote a riveting, meticulously-detailed account of the murders, with long and detailed backstories on what brought both of them to the Clutter home that night.

That included the nightmarish, soul-warping childhood of Smith and the disturbing change in Hickock after an auto wreck. A happy-go-lucky kid whose vice was non-violent petty thievery became a murderer.

Capote’s book didn’t justify anything Hickock or Smith did, and their backstories didn’t persuade anyone in Kansas that they didn’t deserve to hang.

In the eyes of many Clutter family members, however, In Cold Blood shifted the story from the good lives of the Clutters to the empty, evil lives of their killers.

Several members of the Clutter family, including grandchildren who decline to be seen on camera, add their voices to this documentary specifically for the purpose of reclaiming the story.

Their preference, they say, would be for the story to go away. But since it doesn’t seem to have ever done that, they want Grandma Bonnie or Uncle Herb to be remembered as good people who loved their family and made their community a better place – not just as incidental victims of a senseless crime.

Not surprisingly, these family critics and some of their surviving friends and neighbors aren’t members of the Capote fan club.

He came into town for his story, took it home and became rich and famous, his critics here say, with little concern for the impact his portrayals could have on the memory of the Clutters.

Capote misrepresented many of the family details, they say, and none so egregiously as the life of Bonnie Clutter. She suffered from sporadic depression, and much of In Cold Blood made it sound as if she were barely functional.

On the contrary, say family members, she fought off the debilitating effects of depression to live an active, upbeat, rewarding life.

That said, Cold Blooded still spends much of its time on Hickock and Smith, partly through their own words and partly through the memories of their families and friends.  

In the process, Cold Blooded inevitably serves as an illustration as to how this kind of frustrating fame warp can work.

There’s a reason more people can identify Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, or Timothy McVeigh than any of their victims. Fond anecdotes from a well-lived civil life simply have trouble competing with an adrenaline-laced tale of humanity at its worst.

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