Sunday, February 9, 2020

In Cold Blood

Author Truman Capote

IN COLD BLOOD                A-                   
USA  (134 mi)  1967  ‘Scope  d: Richard Brooks

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.
—Truman Capote, first paragraph from the opening chapter, The Last to See Them Alive, from In Cold Blood, 1966

Who so sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. 
Genesis 9:6 (mis-identified in the film as Genesis 9:12), spoken by the Prosecutor (Will Geer)

It all began with a brief piece in The New York Times, from Holcolmb, Kansas on November 16, 1959:  “A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged… There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut.”  Author Truman Capote happened to take a special interest in the incident, enough for him to travel to Kansas to investigate the case, especially after the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested six weeks after the murders.  Capote eventually compiled 8000 pages of notes and spent six years working on the book through the trial, conviction, and long appeal process, but after they were executed by hanging in April, 1965, the story was initially released 5 months later in a four-part installment in The New Yorker magazine and was an instant success.  The true crime or “non-fiction” novel was released in January of the following year, considered a landmark work, one of the first of its kind (following by 9 years the publication of Argentinean journalist Rodolfo Walsh’s 1957 book Operación Masacre, an exposé on the military coup and ousting of Argentine President Juan Perón) and perhaps the most successful ever, where despite its claims of authenticity, being a true account of what happened, Capote admittedly took poetic license by adding scenes that never happened while also recreating dialogue.  Capote conducted interviews with both men after they were convicted, developing a particularly close relationship with Perry Smith, where rumors persist they may have developed a sexual bond together, developing a special fascination with the more tender and sensitive side of a brutal killer.  Capote reportedly remarked, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house.  And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.” 

One of the more critical voices *against* the book was from fellow Southern author Tom Wolfe in a 1976 essay called Pornoviolence, calling it sadistic and sensational, where he attributes a growing trend in the media to glorify violence as a way of satiating the audience, citing Tobe Hooper’s film THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) and Capote’s book In Cold Blood, arguing that in the absence of mystery, since we already know the outcome, Capote provides gruesome and salacious details, reducing the work to little more than lurid sensationalism.  Certainly violence in American movies rose to new heights with the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), told sympathetically from the point of view of the outlaws, adding folksy humor with bullets and death, where despite the gratuitous violence, their murderous tendencies are secondary to the power of their performances which endear them to the public, becoming part of American folklore, much like the extraordinary performances seen throughout THE GODFATHER (1972).  Even James Cagney in White Heat (1949) is as entertaining as they come, and his sheer willpower dominates the picture, which is what endears him to audiences even as they know he’s a loathsome psychotic killer who probably deserves the electric chair.  BONNIE AND CLYDE was a sensation, however, where Time magazine called it the “Movie of the Decade,” nominated for 10 Academy Awards.  Nonetheless, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther’s response was to call it “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick that treats the depredations of that sleazy pair as though they were full of fun and frolic.”  Crowley was asked to retire later that same year, as he was simply out of step with the radically changing expectations of new movie audiences that also adored the minimalist romanticism of The Graduate (1967). 

In Cold Blood received more notoriety as a book than as a film, hailed as an acclaimed masterpiece prior to release, where the pre-publication earnings totaled something like 2 million dollars, which would suggest Capote was paid approximately $15 per word.  Possessed with a near inhuman power of recall, Capote’s skill always lay in his meticulously thorough detail, put to good use here displaying superb journalistic skills in an exhaustive account of the senseless murder of the entire Clutter family on their farm in Holcomb, Kansas (population 270), where Hickock (Scott Wilson) and Smith (Robert Blake) netted only $40 dollars for their efforts, substantially less than the $10,000 score they were expecting.   What captured the nation’s attention was how such a horribly gruesome crime could take place in America’s heartland with no hint of a comprehensible motive.  What Capote provided along with the criminal exposé was a piece of Americana, a time capsule landscape portrait of rural America, picking up every detail of life in a small community on what may as well be the far edge of the world.  Much like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, published in 1955, Capote’s highly subjective writing style unleashes his power of observation using flashbacks, fragmented memories, or psychologically traumatic moments to alter the sense of time, accentuating brief moments, slowing down the pace, drawing sympathy from scenes of a character’s childhood while also revealing the vast expanse of an empty landscape that seems to last forever.  At least in part a road movie, as the two men are constantly on the run, there is a neverending stream of motel rooms, endless night highways, wayside drive-ins, and nondescript towns with no names, where perhaps we’ll see a lone railway stop as these aimless drifters pass through without any sense of where they are.  Told out of sequence in a near documentary style, one of the most effective scenes comes on the vibrant streets of Kansas City, watching how easily Hickock blends into the locale using small town charm as he operates his check bouncing scheme collecting a quick buck during the height of the Eisenhower 50’s, where he plays upon the perceived security and good natured kindness of the store clerks and uses that against them, in much the same way as they simply walked into the unlocked door of the Clutter farmhouse. 

Devastatingly low-key, much of it shot on actual site locations, perhaps the best cinematic technique is how the director brilliantly structures the scenes detailing the crime itself, leading us up to the moment without actually showing the murders, then backtracking into the lives of the murderers, making them the focus of the movie, while the book spends more time developing the individual characters of the Clutter family.  Brooks returns later to what the audience doesn’t initially see, where the full graphic effect of the crime is horrifying.  Neighborly trust is something to exploit, much like Nabokov’s young siren, which raises a profoundly interesting moral dilemma, as throughout the film Hickock calls Smith honey or baby or sweetie, all with sexual connotations, suggesting from a jail perspective that Smith may exhibit gay or feminine characteristics.  While Hickock brags of his sexual exploits, Smith recoils in fear, recalling how his mother was beaten savagely by his father for being caught sleeping with another man, suggesting a possible lack of sexual prowess.  It is only when Hickock makes advances on Nancy Clutter (Brenda Currin), a teenage girl, that Smith becomes enraged at his despicable behavior, exerting “I despise people who can’t control themselves,” which kick-starts his aggression against the otherwise helpless Clutter family.  There’s an interesting use of a police psychologist, Paul Stewart as Lee Jensen, who acts as a writer’s voice of conscience throughout, continually questioning the existence of moral reason and striving for psychological clarity even in seemingly senseless cases, “How can a perfectly sane man create an absolutely crazy act?”  By the end, there’s a melancholic cloud of doom that suggests a lack of closure or finality, where despite the riches and prosperity of the nation, all we’re left with is a pervasive sadness and emptiness filled with haunting, lingering thoughts about the senselessness of it all, where there’s no reason to believe capital punishment has any effect whatsoever on the criminal behavior of people hopped up on drugs (linked to 80% of prison inmates, Drugs or Alcohol Linked to 80% of Inmates - New York Times), enraged by jealousy, or driven for whatever motives to carry out completely senseless acts of violence.  

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