In Cold Blood: Structuring the Real

On Film / Essays — Nov 18, 2015
In Cold Blood essay2

By December 14, 1967, when Richard Brooks’s adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was released in theaters, audiences were already prepared to receive it as a frightening milestone in gritty screen realism. The publicity campaign leading them to do so had begun eight years and one month earlier, when the shotgun murders of prosperous farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife, and two of their children in their Holcomb, Kansas, home became news around the country. The violence and terror of the killings, the lack of an apparent motive, and the fact that the victims were well liked and utterly ordinary made the case a gruesome psychic landmark for the many who thought or feared that American society was breaking down. If the capture, conviction, and execution (in April 1965) of the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, failed either to assuage such anxieties or even, in the feeling of the public, to bring closure to the particular case, that’s at least in part because Truman Capote’s best-selling book (published in 1966) ensured for the Clutter slayings a long tenure in mass consciousness, while also raising to the level of inescapable truth the existence of the kind of wretchedness and viciousness that characterized the two murderers’ lives.

With the book In Cold Blood, Capote claimed to have invented a new form, the “nonfiction novel.” His development of this form, which he described as combining the “horizontal” linearity of journalism with the “verticality” of fiction, “taking you deeper and deeper into characters and events,” led him to give his narrative a filmic structure. Using a strategy analogous to cinematic intercutting, the book links the killers’ misadventures to the activities of the Clutters and the police. In removing himself from the narrative and giving the impression of maintaining a neutral and detached point of view, Capote seems to appropriate the ability of cinema to view its characters and their world from the outside, with photographic objectivity.

Capote chose Brooks to entrust with his hot property because, as the writer explained, “he was the only director who agreed with—and was willing to risk—my own concept of how the book should be transferred to film.” Both Brooks and Capote wanted the film shot in black and white, which in 1967 still signified an alignment with documentary realism, and insisted on casting unfamiliar actors as the killers. When Capote, visiting the film set, first saw Robert Blake and Scott Wilson, whom Brooks had chosen to play Perry and Dick, he was struck by the “mesmerizing reality” of their resemblance to their real-life counterparts. (So imposing are Blake and Wilson in the film that it is almost impossible to believe that, as Brooks recalled, Columbia had wanted Paul Newman and Steve McQueen for the roles.)

From the start of his involvement with In Cold Blood, Brooks had been adamant that the film of a book that was much noted for the meticulousness of the author’s research must match or surpass it in creating a realistic effect. Brooks managed to shoot in many of the locations where the events of the story had taken place, including both the exterior and interior of the Clutter house. The director chose his collaborators for their ability to bring qualities that would be felt by viewers as edging the film closer to raw experience than mainstream movies generally came. Cinematographer Conrad Hall had shot The Professionals (1966) for Brooks and, before that, served a remarkable apprenticeship on the TV series The Outer Limits (1963–65), where he honed a distinctive combination of austere abstraction, documentary-like immediacy, and the monstrous. The things Hall brought to In Cold Blood—lens flares (from the sun or from car headlights), some very lengthy zooms, and a taste for shooting in near darkness (the scene of the killings is lit only with flashlights, an effect that roused Capote’s admiration)—all marked the film’s estrangement from the visual norms of Hollywood cinema. Quincy Jones, who had scored Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1965), another landmark of Hollywood’s new realism, contributed a jangling and sinister score. The dialogue (most of it straight from Capote) features such defiances of the Production Code as “gorgeous piece of butt,” “classy pussy,” “stop jacking off,” and “bullshit.”

Realism on the page and realism on the screen mean different things, and it is fascinating to see these differences play out in the adaptation of In Cold Blood. In the book, Alvin Dewey, one of the detectives in charge of the Clutter case, remarks, “I’ve come to feel I know Herb and the family better than they ever knew themselves.” Though Capote’s hyperrealist technique tries to give the reader the same feeling, his accumulation of the details of the characters’ lives does not produce quite the sense of recognition we get from Brooks’s film. In the book, the effect of cutting back and forth between the killers and the Clutters is to make us see the two as inhabiting entirely separate universes. In the film, on the other hand, though the extremes of these lives are not entirely continuous, we feel that the characters all belong to the same world. Though sometimes labored, Brooks’s cross-cutting strategy pays off when he cuts from the killers driving across the railroad tracks to Nancy Clutter in her room preparing for bed, and we hear what we know to be the same train passing in both shots. The formal contiguity of editing has suddenly become physical inevitability.

One reason that Brooks’s film achieves a greater sense of a world than the book is the power that objects take on in being photographed. The printed words shoeprints and rope are generalizations; in the film, these shoeprints and this rope pronounce the verdict of reality on the killers. The locations in the film give instant access to an America that, at the end of Capote’s massing of detail, still needs to be logically constructed by the reader. It’s because of the unavoidable particularity of film that Hall’s ability to achieve a quality of abstraction is so valuable to In Cold Blood. The bus station where the killers rendezvous, the hardware store where they buy the rope, the gleaming gas station seven miles from Holcomb where they fill up, as filmed by Hall, become Platonic ideals of a bus station, a hardware store, a gas station.

In its artful appearance of hovering between the abstract and the real, between documentary and dramatic reenactment, Brooks’s film moves away from mere realism. The central question raised by both the book and the film is: To what extent can the murders of the Clutters be understood as part of a meaningful pattern, and to what extent are they appalling accidents in a chaotic universe where anything can happen to anybody? In an epilogue for which Capote has been much criticized, the book introduces the reflection that the survivors’ lives go on, letting the reader take away some consolation. The film goes about answering its main question very differently, using structures that are specific to cinema and to Brooks’s own trajectory and convictions in order to offer viewers of the harrowing drama the reassurance of familiar contexts and frames of view.

For all his iconoclasm, Brooks is not above using rhetorical flourishes that highlight his allegiance to Hollywood tradition, such as the very Hitchcockian crane shot that introduces Floyd Wells, the convict who gives the police the tip that leads to the killers’ capture. Incidentally, In Cold Blood recalls Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in certain aspects: random murder, a road-centered America, a small town overwhelmed by the sensational crime. (Psycho too has a scene in a hardware store.) Another precedent for Brooks’s film is Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), also noted for its frank language, and also shot in the locations where its real-life story took place. The use of John Huston’s 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (in which Blake appeared as a boy) as a recurring reference point for Perry is much expanded from a single mention in Capote’s book. Blake’s Perry evokes Humphrey Bogart with affection and awe (recalling Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Bogie-worshipping crook in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless) and keeps his picture in his death row cell, and he has the ironic self-awareness to note that, in being reduced to picking up discarded soda bottles for refund money, he is engaged in an absurd reenactment of Bogart’s treasure hunt.

By having Dewey make a cynical speech about newspapers (“Someday, somebody will explain to me the motive of a newspaper . . .”), Brooks places In Cold Blood within his personal tradition of movies about journalism (1952’s Deadline – U.S.A., 1960’s Elmer Gantry). Along these lines, Brooks also gives both killers the chance to articulate rough sketches of a liberal argument about crime and punishment. Dick launches into a tirade against American conformity (“That cop’s badge, what does it do, make you feel honest? Everybody’s got a tattoo. Only you people call them clubs”), while Perry is allowed this analysis: “If they’d had a head doctor here during my first stretch, he would have known I had a bomb ticking inside of me. He would have known I wasn’t ready for parole.”

The journalist Bill Jensen is one of Brooks’s two most decisive additions. An observer of the tragedy, Jensen seems to represent Capote himself, though as played by hard-boiled veteran actor Paul Stewart, he could scarcely be more different from the flamboyant writer in appearance and manner. Given visual prominence on his first appearance, discovered by the panning camera leaning in a doorway at the edge of a group scene, Jensen soon enters his role as spokesman for the film (or, as Capote said disparagingly, “a kind of Greek chorus”), commenting: “A violent, unknown force destroys a decent, ordinary family. No clues. No logic. Makes us all feel frightened, vulnerable.” Through Jensen, Brooks is able to get into the film a key theoretical argument (which Capote had summarized) about the abnormal psychology of the killers. Later, Jensen assumes the role of voice-over narrator, summing up the trial, describing the prison where the killers will end their days, and narrating the course of their appeals. Jensen’s characterization as a disabused but compassionate big-city reporter and the casting of an iconic actor to play him (Stewart’s credits included appearances in the classic newspaper film, Citizen Kane, and in Deadline – U.S.A.) offer hope that some degree of Hollywood meaning can be gotten out of the collision between the killers and the Clutters. Similarly reassuring are Brooks’s brisk handling of the crime-and-detection narrative structure and his elaborate orchestration of crisscrossing movements all through the film.

The second decisive innovation Brooks made in adapting the book was to build up a visual motif of Perry’s recollections and hallucinations of his parents. When Perry, running into the Clutter cellar, confronts the tied-up farmer, shots of Perry’s father are cut into the scene, providing visual confirmation for the notion that the killing of Clutter is Perry’s unconscious revenge against his father. The final scene goes further by having Perry briefly mistake his hangman for his father. The closing of the narrative circle that this hallucination provides underlines Brooks’s main point: that capital punishment is murder. Again through the voice of Jensen, Brooks goes much further than Capote in condemning capital punishment. Asked for the executioner’s name, Jensen replies, “We the people.” The end score, as counted by the journalist: “Four innocent and two guilty people murdered.” Jensen also denies the deterrent effect of the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Brooks portrays Perry as an innocent. About to go to the gallows, he voices a pathetic fear of messing himself, then, in a very moving scene beside a rainy window, speaks of his father. (Hall told many times of how the extraordinary effect of the reflection of water flowing down Blake’s face had not been planned in advance but was discovered during shooting.) Brooks films the execution with tremendous vigor: subjective handheld traveling shots from Perry’s point of view capture his terror as he mounts the gallows; in a very effective passage, Perry whirls around to notice every detail of the preparations under way.

Brooks’s In Cold Blood seeks not just to present reality but to redeem it, an ambition that stamps it as a work of midcentury American liberalism. Brooks’s passionate opposition to capital punishment, his attitudes about law enforcement and criminal justice, and his assumption of Perry’s subjective viewpoint may feel less modern than Capote’s neutrality. Yet, steeped as it is in the visuality of the harsh and contradictory American 1960s, the film of In Cold Blood manages to be more disenchanted, more hopeless than the book. Surveying the future of America, Brooks sees nothing but meaningless repetition, the mass production of murder. This hopelessness remains potent in his film, together with the performances of Blake and Wilson and the vitality and exactness of Hall’s encapsulation of an American landscape that could yield both prosperity and bottomless misery.