This week's honoree as Classic Film of the Week is the 1967 Richard Brooks adaptation of In Cold Blood, which Bennett Miller's Oscar hopeful Capote has suddenly coaxed back into the public limelight. I had never read Truman Capote's original book until this fall, when I checked it out from the library in somewhat noncommittal hopes of reading it before I saw Capote. Thank goodness I made the time. I was thunderstruck by how taut and evocative the prose was, and by how craftily Capote absents his own probing, projecting, and narrating voice and presence from the book's compellingly "objective" account. Stunning, too, is the range of ground Capote covers: Perry Smith and Dick Hickock's psychopathic brotherhood in arms, their murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas (excepting those older siblings who had the grim good fortune to have moved away), their erratic flights both away from and back to the scene of their crimes, and their eventual arrest by the tired, demoralized, but determined Kansan authorities.
As Capote's book wends its way toward the executions of both men, you can feel how it affords an extra if ambivalent measure of sympathy toward Perry Smith, but more than that you feel the lacerating irony between what seems like the implacable resolution of this case and the Pandora's box of morbid nightmares and repressions that erupted out of this story and into the entire national imaginary. For me, one of the most poignant moments in the book, though almost a throwaway, is when Sheriff Alvin Dewey initially resists the idea of multiple perpetrators, because he simply can't believe that the requisite level of murderous, misanthropic rage could possibly be shared by two people, could possibly be so contagious. Reading In Cold Blood now, of course, backward through the now-insatiable American obsession with mass murderwith even the idea or the fantasy of mass murderDewey's naïveté on this point seems both precious and pitiable.
How writer-director Brooks hoped to evoke the wealth of this material on screen, so very soon after the book's publication, is hard to gauge. I forget who first said this, but Brooks seemed to make a career of trying to adapt salacious and confrontational material that was almost doomed to be neutered on mid-century Hollywood screens. His Tennessee Williams adaptations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, are diverting and seedily glamorous until you read the plays and discover what hopeless eviscerations the films have performed. Elmer Gantry, for which Brooks won a writing Oscar, is such an overtly schizophrenic parable of showmanship and concealment, religious zealotry and cynical agendas, that the film's own peepshow of candor and censorship with its own themes actually works rather wellbetter than it should, in any event. For In Cold Blood, though, Brooks shunned the celebrity exploitation and voluptuous color of these popular hits and opted for much less recognizable stars: the mealy and peculiar Robert Blake, now associated in his own terrible way with the killing psyche, and the handsome Scott Wilson, so astutely cast as Aileen Wuornos' final, pleading victim in Monster and, even more against type, as the recessive, kindly paterfamilias in this year's Junebug. Blake and Wilson both obviously relish their parts, approaching their characters' sociopathy with almost athletic energy, but also drawing out the self-loathing of Perry and the graduated narcissism of Dick, such that we understand these two as both equal and opposite kinds of killer. It's a stirring duet, though In Cold Blood cannily refuses to trot them out too blatantly for our review: shots of their faces are quick, off-kilter, and frequently obstructed, so that like the monster in a sci-fi thriller, they keep flirting with our gaze, and our wish to understand them, without really gratifying either one.
This last is just one of many ace conceits of Conrad L. Hall's exquisite cinematography, which risks a mannered aestheticism in some scenes that is wholly earned by its tough, muscular power and hauntingly glossy tones in others. There's the famous shot, of course, where Blake's face, as he looks out the window of his cell on death row, is covered by the shadows of rivulets of rain, so that his maudlin nostalgia for a wasted youth is shot through with real, almost uncanny feeling. But just as harrowing are the grittier shots of both men's fathers, interviewed by police at different times, and pinned into their humble surroundings by Hall's static but insistent camera. The dynamics inside the car are never tedious, despite the copious driving scenes, andjust like CapoteIn Cold Blood actually improves measurably as it continues, its editing and photography almost stunned to attention by the gravity of what they are forced to depict: slaughter, guilt, expiation, execution.
In Cold Blood is far from perfect, and a few too many scenes bespeak that Brooks-style laundering familiar from other films. The serial match-cuts in the first half-hour between Perry and Dick's motions on the road and the Clutter family's domestic routines don't make any obvious point besides the filmmakers' sometimes empty enthusiasm for high style; in a similar way, Quincy Jones' syncopated jazz score is admirable on its own terms but perhaps not exactly what the movie needs, or even wants. Still, the demerits of In Cold Blood are awfully hard to remember after its long, skin-freezing conclusion, and an exposure to either the book or the film is bound to deepen one's appreciation for Capote.