Sundance’s ‘Cold Blooded’ recalls a half-century-old crime that still resonates

“Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders” airs Saturday, Nov. 18 and Sunday, Nov. 19 on SundanceTV.

It was the crime that spawned a best-selling book, three hit movies and a TV miniseries, and arguably launched an entire literary genre. And it’s explored in depth in a two-part documentary series premiering this week on SundanceTV.

In “Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders,” airing Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 18 and 19, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory”) delves into the brutal Nov. 15, 1959, murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in rural Kansas by ex-convicts Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who were eventually apprehended, then tried, convicted and executed for the crime.

The quadruple murder captured the attention of the nation and author Truman Capote, whose ensuing six-year investigation resulted in his landmark book “In Cold Blood,” from which the movies “In Cold Blood” (1967), “Capote” (2005) and “Infamous” (2006) and the 1996 TV miniseries “In Cold Blood” were adapted. In the process, a new genre, the nonfiction novel, was born.

Berlinger’s four-hour documentary takes a fresh look at the case through the accounts of relatives, friends, townspeople and law enforcement, insights of those who were close to the original investigation, and previously unknown photographs, audio recordings and documents.

“It’s just it’s the first time anyone, I believe, has really pulled back, really focused on what was the family like and who they are and humanizing them,” Berlinger told a recent gathering of journalists in Beverly Hills, Calif. “How did the investigation unfold? A little bit about how the reality differs a little bit from the book. But we don’t, like, wallow in that.

“To me, it’s just setting the scene,” he continues, “and telling the story that, even if you’re familiar with the story, it tells the story in a very comprehensive and … in a very ‘O.J.: Made in America’ sort of way, which … I thought was absolutely brilliant. So we try to contextualize things that you wouldn’t have thought to contextualize if this had been 25 years ago.”

Fifty years after it was published, “In Cold Blood” still enthralls readers, and the case remains an endless source of fascination for true-crime buffs, among them Berlinger, who admits it has informed some of the work he has done over the years, including his 2011 documentary “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.”

“For me, this book was really deeply influential,” he says, “not just as someone who enjoys literature, but as a teller of true crime stories. … This was the precipitating story that kind of launched what we’re in today. Whether that’s good or bad, we are swimming in crime stories. And I feel like this was the story that kicked it off.”

George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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