Monday, May 27, 2013

The "elaborate tease" of In Cold Blood

Richard Brooks’ film of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood opens with the ominous blasts of discordant horns. After the title is displayed on an inky night backdrop, we are introduced to the killers. Perry Smith (Robert Blake) is on a bus. We first see the sole of his boot as a young girl approaches him to retrieve a quarter while he’s strumming a guitar. “Excuse me,” she says as she returns to her seat. Smith strikes a match to light a cigarette and we see his visage in the light of the flame.

Seconds later, his accomplice, Dick Hickok (Scott Wilson), makes a similar entrance, his face illuminated by a flashlight as he looks through a chest where he keeps his shotgun. Quincy Jones’ loud, throbbing jazz-infused score continues its moody accompaniment to Conrad Hall’s shadowy cinematography.

When we first see the Clutters, the farm family that will be victimized by Smith and Hickok, it is daylight. Birds are chirping as Mr. Clutter (John McLiam) surveys the morning alongside his dog. He steps inside and daughter Nancy descends the stairs to the sound of strings as soft, gentle, and innocent as the earlier music was dark and threatening.

The contrast is a little too contrived with the characters painted in broad brushstrokes, but the killers are presented with more detail, especially Smith whose past is acknowledged in several flashback sequences, while the Clutters are merely sketched, their wholesome goodness emphasized in a way that makes them stereotypes rather than flesh and blood figures. But it’s their blood that’s shed (in black-and-white) in the dramatic sequence at the film’s midpoint.

In 1967, the year of the film’s release, In Cold Blood was almost as acclaimed as Capote’s book which he insisted was an example of a new literary form, the “nonfiction novel.” In Douglas McGrath’s 2006 film Infamous, the second of two cinematic accounts of the book’s creation, Capote tells his friend, Nell Harper Lee, who accompanied him to Kansas to conduct research, about his “novel,” and she ruffles his feathers by insisting that the only way to bring fictional techniques to reportage is to “make things up.” McGrath, though praising both Capote’s book and Brooks’ “wonderful” film on the DVD commentary track, believes Capote invented quite a bit, including Smith’s apology just before the noose is placed around his neck prior to his execution. Alvin Dewey, the detective on the case (played by Jeff Daniels in McGrath’s film and by John Forsythe in In Cold Blood), witnessed the execution and claims Smith made no statement. “He just chewed his gum.”

It’s been 35 years since I first read the book. I was impressed, but gave no thought to literary techniques at the time. I’ve seen the film multiple times since I saw it at a drive-in in summer 1968. I wasn’t impressed then, but was when revisiting it on television when it aired on CBS in 1973. (The film had its TV premiere one year earlier, in November 1972, but WJW-TV8, the local Cleveland affiliate, pre-empted it in favor of a rerun of The War Wagon because claiming the language in In Cold Blood was too rough and in violation of their standards.)

I’m older now, and hopefully wiser, and watching In Cold Blood on DVD recently, I find that I agree with Renata Adler who, in 1968 as a columnist for The New York Times, dissected the film in an article titled “Cold Blood, Cheap Fiction.” The film, she believed, “reveals, by what it finds necessary to explain, and paper over, and underscore, just what sort of book Truman Capote’s much publicized non-fiction novel was.” The book and the film are an “elaborate tease,” all building up to the murder scene and the senseless violence that both allegedly condemn. The murder scene is expertly handled by Brooks, but its placement in the middle of the film as a flashback during Perry’s confession is meant to create anticipation, to make the audience wait and look forward to the shock they really came to see.

“I guess that the film must somehow say that this tragedy is to some degree the responsibility of all of us,” Richard Brooks told The New York Times before filming began in 1966. “None of us can turn away from one another. It’s our problem, not that of a few people in Kansas. That, I suppose, is our basic dramatic intention. I’m not sure how I’ll convey it but that’s the intention anyway.”

In Adler’s view, “The pacing of the book (and now of the movie) has been set up in such a way that only the killers have any reality at all. The book, the movie, the killers, the audience is stalking the family together.” In that sense, Brooks succeeded in saying the murders are “the responsibility of all of us” because the film makes us participants by making Smith and Hickok sympathetic. We learn about their troubled pasts, join them on their whimsical trek through the desert picking up soda bottles with an old man and his grandson to cash in for refunds (we know it’s whimsical because Quincy Jones’ score turns amusingly light at this time), but learn little about their victims except that they are decent, which seems to be a way to also suggest they’re uninteresting. “The Clutters might comfortably inhabit any aspirin or mouthwash commercial,” Adler writes. “They are set up as coldly and two-dimensionally as in a shooting range. . . They are there to die.”

Capote’s book and Brooks’ film may be meticulously crafted, but both are, as Adler says, “cheap fiction” even though the crime at the heart of the story is factual. Both have the depth of a “true crime” story the likes of which have been the basis for dozens of bestselling novels in the years following In Cold Blood, or perhaps an episode of Unsolved Mysteries and 48 Hours. It is a dramatic work in which the author’s hand is visible throughout.

“I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman,” Perry Smith says. “Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the time I cut his throat.”

If Perry Smith actually said those words – the most famous in Capote’s book – his flair for the dramatic was as strong as the author’s. In Infamous, a film that takes liberties with the truth as much as In Cold Blood did, we see Capote telling variations on Smith’s remarks to several friends,. He writes then down then compares their effectiveness, placing a checkmark next to the one he eventually chooses for his book.

Brian W. Fairbanks
October 4, 2009

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


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