05 February 2008

Movielog, In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood, 1967
Written and Directed by Richard Brooks
based on the book by Truman Capote
134 minutes

(You can also read my review of the book.)

The killing of the Clutter family in Holcomb, KS in 1958 was brutal, a seemingly random act committed by two men -- Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. It was a news sensation for months, so much so that Truman Capote came to Kansas and spent years interviewing virtually everyone in the town, eventually writing what is considered one of the first "nonfiction novels", in which the craft of fiction is applied to true events.

So fitting, then, that the film version applies the techniques of cinema to the same true story. Many of the places shown in the film (most notably, the Clutter home) were the actual places where the events took place, and much attention is given to making the events in the movie as much like the events in real life as possible. If ever it was possible to completely document a crime, the combination of the book and film has undoubtedly done it.

Therefore, it is interesting to note the ways in which the film is forced to deviate from the book. Structurally, they are quite similar, following the lives of the Clutters on the last day of their lives and the two killers on their fateful day, then cutting to after the murders and showing the discovery of the bodies. This is followed in both by a long sequence showing the police attempts to catch the two men who are now on the lam, although the movie by necessity focuses much more on the killers, whereas the book has a larger scope to encompass the town and the media's reaction to the brutal slayings. Eventually, the two men are caught, and Perry Smith gives a long recounting of the events of that night, and this is perhaps the most effective sequence of either the novel or the movie, full of the raw power of desperate men confronted with an impossible situation. Finally, both book and movie end in a trial and an execution.

Capote's book, in attempting to give a comprehensive view, is often meandering, and the stylistic devices he uses in describing people and situations feel dated at times. The film, on the other hand, is shot in what seems to be a totally modernist way, full of moving camera shots and with performances so naturalistic they seem flat at times. And while the book spends considerable time following the trail of the investigation, the movie makes this a much more cursory examination, preferring instead to focus on the psychology of the killers. The longest sequence we see here of the police investigation is the questioning of each of the boy's fathers, separately, in which the essential humanity of each is displayed.

Hickock (Scott Wilson) here is a basic con man, charming and suave. During one unforgettable sequence, we see him charm a clothing store owner into allowing him to cash a check in the man's store -- Hickock knows full well the check will bounce, and is counting on the money to get where he wants. Hickock is even conning his partner Smith (Robert Blake) -- going along with Smith's crazy schemes for riches in Mexico when really all he's seeking is women. Smith, for his part, is a blank, a hanger-on who is kicked around by life. He has been injured in a motorcycle accident, and he is addicted to asprin, which helps to numb the pain.

A narrator late in the film intones that the two men together created a third personality that committed a crime which neither of the two could have committed alone, and this comes through more clearly in the film than in the book. Hickock needs Smith to get his hands dirty in ways that Hickock is incapable of doing, and Smith needs Hickock to egg him on and give him the focus to perform unspeakable acts. When the crime is finally revealed, the $10,000 that Hickock assures Smith is there for the taking is completely absent -- the two men end up with $43 as the total haul for their eight hundred mile round trip, and killing the family comes across as almost an afterthought, a simple matter of following the plan, no matter how bungled it really became.

The film is not perfect. It ends with a lengthy bit by a narrator convincing the audience that capital punishment is simply murder, and while I am in agreement with the politics, the message is hamfisted. The performances and the writing and direction have thus far shown great subtlety, and to have the film drop the ball towards the end is a bit of a disappointment. Yet the film is otherwise wonderful, with stunning cinematography by the late Conrad Hall (the "Prince of Darkness"), and with a gritty look and heartfelt performances that are amazingly good. Blake, in particular, is well-cast -- his speech towards the end about his true motivations and thoughts as he slit the nice man's throat are delivered with the kind of affect that brings a lump to the throat.

Yes, this film has a bit of a broken ending, but see it anyway, for the performances, for the direction, for the story, and yes, simply for curiosity's sake. When this film works, it works extremely well, and that long sequence showing the crime is among the best sequences of its kind ever filmed. To watch this film is to examine the heart of darkness, and to seemingly stare our own mortality in the face. And at the end we remember the film's most famous line of dialogue: I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman... I thought so right up to the time I cut his throat.

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