Archive for June, 2010


In Cold Blood

In 1967, Warren Beatty released the film “Bonnie and Clyde,” his elegy to the Depression-era criminals-on-the-run Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. As producer and some would say writer and director (even there were other names in the credits), Beatty ensured that his movie would romanticize the pair as symbols of the 1960s counterculture. For a more complete account of the making and reception of “Bonnie and Clyde,” you might want to check out Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-‘n’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1998) and Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (2010).

1967 also saw the release of Richard Brooks’ screen adaptation of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Rather than presenting its killers as glamorous, “In Cold Blood,” by following the original book’s content and style, presented an accurate portrait of the real-life 1959 murders of the Clutter family in rural Holcomb, Kansas. The film would push the envelope (it was the first commercially released film in the U.S. to use the word “shit) but in different ways. Unlike other crime movies and books, “In Cold Blood” is not about the who, the what, or even the why (none of which are really a secret), but about the how, which is not revealed until toward the end. In its quest for accuracy in content and feel (and in keeping with Capote’s style), the film reports the facts with very little emotion and uses a “you-are-there” realism through its use of specific stylistic choices, including black-and-white cinematography, the use of unknown actors (Scott Wilson as Dick and Robert Blake as Perry, whose own life in his later years would mirror that of Perry’s), and the use of real locations, such as the actual Clutter house. In these ways, “In Cold Blood” seems more European than Hollywood.

However, emotion does happen during instances when the audience can’t help but sympathize and even identify with Perry, seemingly the more sensitive and pathetic of the pair. Brooks uses experiences that only we share with Perry and with no one else. These include Perry’s fantasy of singing in Vegas, his frustration and feelings of personal affront when he’s trying to find a pay phone in a bus station, and his memories of an unhappy childhood and a motorcycle accident. These peeks into Perry’s psyche are presented with minimal sound effects and no dialogue, except for when his mother calls out his name in the distance. Perry’s slowing heartbeat is the very last thing you hear on a blank screen at the film’s conclusion. These moments of viewer connection with Perry are even more jarring when we finally discover his exact role in the killings.

Brooks (and Capote in the source material) not only makes connections between Perry and the audience but between characters, which suggests an inevitability of everything that happens. Side note: I think this inevitability contrasts with the randomness of events apparent in other breakthrough films of the era, including “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider,” but that’s probably for another entry. This is most obvious in certain shots in adjacent scenes between the killers (especially Perry) and the Clutters and later between the killers and the police. The shots, abruptly coming one after the other, are almost like a call and response or a question and answer. For example, Nancy, the Clutters’ daughter, picks up the phone to make a call; in the next shot, Perry picks up his phone, and it seems that he is answering her call, but we are in a different scene altogether. In another instance, Mr. Clutter is shaving and bends down in front of his bathroom mirror to rinse his face; in the following shot/scene, Perry rises in front of a mirror. After the murders, the Clutter housekeeper asks the police where the Clutter son Kenyon’s portable radio is; the next shot/scene shows a close-up of that radio with Perry and Dick, who have stolen it. During the investigation, the detectives refer to the unknown killers as being anyone on the street; this leads to a long shot of Dick and Perry walking on a crowded street.

Films about Truman Capote’s trips to Kansas to write “In Cold Blood” and his interactions with Dick and Perry include “Infamous” (with Toby Jones, 2006) and “Capote” (with an Oscar-winning performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2005).