I’ve completed my Truman Capote true crime story arc. I’ve read the book, seen the twin movies based on the writing of the book, Infamous (2006) and Capote (2005), and, now, thanks to a friend, DVR, and Turner Classic Movies, I’ve watched the movie adaptation of the writer’s 1966 book, In Cold Blood. I don’t exactly recommend any of these works, though Capote’s literary account of the barbaric murders and the movie Capote are the most involving of the bunch.
The creepy 1967 picture begins with real-life accused murderer Robert Blake as one of the two monsters who plotted to rob, loot, and kill an entire family, and did, long before the hippie Manson Family terrorized Los Angeles in 1969, taking the nation’s then-newly accepted cultural nihilism to its logical conclusion. Blake’s beast eyes a young girl on a Greyhound bus, and so starts this terrible tale, in black and white with a jazzy, disturbing Quincy Jones (In the Heat of the Night) score.
Blake’s mass murderer character, based on the gimpy troll with whom Capote apparently became entranced, had delusions of grandeur as a musician, just like mass murderer Charles Manson. Blake sets an early scene as the strange alien, with Catholic nuns and soldiers using public pay phones that he can’t seem to access, and the greasy character seems to take everything personally, as though he’s been hurt by the world and takes the smallest detail as a cross to bear. With an image of Jesus Christ hanging on a wall, and the doomed, religious Clutter family on the plains of Kansas, in proximity to Blake’s brooding Perry as an unwelcome, misunderstood outsider, you have the same subtly celebrated cold-blooded killer as in Capote’s richly written drama, which may be part fiction, part non-fiction and ultimately a glorification of crime and evil. Scott Wilson plays Perry’s partner in crime, and, it is insinuated, his homosexual lover. Actor John Forsythe (later Blake Carrington on Dynasty) portrays the police detective who tracks them down and Will Geer (later Grandpa on The Waltons) appears as the prosecutor.
The film is appropriately eerie, like the unconscionable crimes, though as the sleazy Dick Hickock, who calls Perry ‘honey’ and purrs “all we need is a ring, sugar,” Wilson is considerably less physically imposing and menacing than Capote depicts him in the book. When In Cold Blood gets to the murders, with music replaced by a howling, western Kansas wind, it devolves into what one might expect: chilling blood porn, with the Clutter family, who have always seemed like the real, interesting story to me, as mere stand-ins for civilized society. The whole second half and everything that happens from when the crime commences is terribly uninvolving, with the filmmakers working toward the conventional view that the mass murder is “an absolutely crazy act” (a total lie: it is an act of pure evil), and In Cold Blood is only mildly useful as a piece that prefigures the decline of actor Robert Blake, Capote’s self-seduction into darkness, and the rise of worshipping evil in the arts. The similarly themed Bonnie and Clyde, another blood porn darling among intellectuals, was released the same year. Now, we’re stuck with heaps of this type of thing every season.
Herbert Clutter, who was 48 when he was shot to death, was apparently a self-made man, one of the most successful farmers and one of the richest men in the state, singled out for his ability as a farmer by President Eisenhower and widely admired throughout the area, but since he and his son, Kenyon, daughter Bonnie, and invalid wife Nancy, were executed on November 15, 1959, for no reason other than hatred for the world, neither New York nor Hollywood wants to know about them. The funny thing is, I do. I am hard pressed to remember when so much been written and pictured so often about such small men without any serious consideration for those whom they slaughtered. Someone ought to tell their story, and maybe I will try, because what makes Herbert Clutter possible is much more fascinating than the puny little monsters that took him down.