I got these two DVDs as a box set just before Christmas, and gave them to myself as a present. I like giving myself stuff.
In Cold Blood (1967)
A film based on Truman Capote’s novel about the killing of Kansas farmer Herbert Clutter and his family. It follows two young men on their journey to the isolated farmhouse, where they have been told Clutter has a hidden safe containing at least $10k, but it soon becomes obvious that this isn’t the case, and in a fit of pique Perry kills the four Clutters. After that we get their various attempts to escape, then the capture and trial, culminating in the death by hanging of the two offenders.
Filmed in black and white and with an initially annoying soundtrack (though I gradually became immune to its discordance and eventually didn’t register it at all, or maybe they just had the good sense to stop), this is a sombre, fascinating study of violent crime. You could make a case for it being a ‘road movie’, with Perry and Dick driving through the wide open spaces of America’s heartland, and perhaps also a ‘buddy buddy movie’, but with hindsight it’s the antithesis of these things. Perry and Dick are not the male equivalent of Thelma and Louise. They are both ex-cons and prone to violence, at least in Perry’s case, though Dick is Svengali to his Trilby, needing only the right set of circumstances for disaster to occur. Watching this the performances of the two leads are mesmerising, with something of their back story filled in and reinventing them not as sympathetic characters, but certainly two young men who we can see how they got to this impasse, all the paths not taken. The tragedy here is that this could so easily have been averted, with other choices open to the men, but fate decreed otherwise and at the end bloody murder is balanced with the grim, ritualistic death ceremonies of society, and nothing good comes of any of it, just wasted lives and lost opportunities.
While the film above gives us the story, this tells us how the story came to be, with Philip Seymour Hoffman doing an Oscar winning turn as writer Truman Capote, who started out to write an article and ended up inventing a new literary form, the docufiction. It’s fascinating to watch Capote get drawn into the circle of these two young men, wanting to peel back the surface and discover what makes them tick. There’s more than a suggestion that he is attracted to the handsome Perry, and at the end this takes the path of betrayal, with Capote reluctant to face the man he has interacted so deeply with when the hours of his life are ticking away. Capote comes across as something of a monster, somebody who will do anything to get his book finished, lying to Perry, dragging out the legal process until he gets the end to his book, neglecting and ignoring friends, lovers. At the end it seems to take a terrible toll on him, and you are left wondering if it was worth it.
Writers. They are such beautiful monsters.
I loved the film, even though I had difficulty with the lead’s southern drawl (this is one of the few English language movies where I’ve needed to follow what’s going on with subtitles). Hoffman’s performance as the ruthless, amoral Capote was a tour de force, a man willing to jettison anything to attain his goal. Great support too from Catherine Keener as friend and helper Harper Lee, while Clifton Collins as Perry was mesmerising, an uneducated man but with a certain native cunning, manipulating Capote for his own advantage just as much as the older man uses him. He seems somewhat more self-aware than in the previous film, Dick’s equal rather than simply muscle. It was a fascinating study of lives blighted by violence and neglect, of obsession and its consequences, ultimately showing that all our best art is rooted deep in the dirt of our tawdry lives.
And now I really want to read In Cold Blood, to find out what all the fuss is about with this Capote guy.
And, as a side issue, it seems to me that, this crime that so shocked a nation and was the genesis of Capote’s masterpiece, nowadays wouldn’t even make the front page of most newspapers, in part because we’ve seen so much done in cold blood that it no longer chills us. We much prefer the distractions provided by reality TV and sport, sex lives of the rich and famous, perhaps as a form of self protection as much as anything else. Murder is no longer what it used to be when it comes to selling newspapers, alas. Post-Capote, only writers of fiction are allowed to tell the truth about the things that damage us most, here at the core of our being, because writers are so easily marginalised and made trivial – it’s only a film, only a book, only entertainment.