Friday, May 20, 2011

In Cold Blood

There’s something strangely romantic in the idea of a couple of criminals on the lam—two against the world, outside of the shackles of social propriety and legal responsibility, free to do what they want, be what they want. Sounds better than waking up at six in the morning to go to work on Monday, at least.

But there’s little romantic in the lives of Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson). The two men murdered four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959, and for what? Less than fifty dollars, a radio and a pair of binoculars. Within a few days of the killings, their wallets were once again filled with as much dust as the Nevada desert, and the pair resorted to cashing bad cheques or picking bottles while plotting their next move. This is less a crime spree than a long series of wrong turns down any number of dead-end dirt roads.

Richard Brooks wrote and directed this 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, aided greatly by the rich cinematography of Conrad Hall and two excellent full-blooded performances from Blake and Wilson. The film is not without a few dubious wrong turns of its own—Perry’s fantasies and hallucinatory visions are particularly at odds with the hardscrabble realism Brooks otherwise seems to be aiming towards—but it’s also an incredible portrait of American violence. Brooks acknowledges the monstrosity of these acts without subtracting the humanity of the perpetrators. Which, when you think about it, makes everything vastly more upsetting.

Not that everything about the film is so dire and dark. In fact, the score (by Quincy Jones!) is rather bright and bold, picking up the usual movie-music tropes and running them through what appears to be some sort of hot jazz machine. But it’s a Technicolor score for a black and white movie. Early scenes of the cheerful, unbelievably perfect Clutter family are married to sprightly, we’re-happy-smiling-people-about-to-die music that borders on poor taste. Just because dramatic irony is impossible to avoid in your story doesn’t mean you should run up and greet it.

No surprise then that the best scenes are often stripped of music. The murder of the Clutter family is played out largely in shadows, a single flashlight used to highlight the cringing faces of the victims. In place of strings and horns are echoing footsteps on a wooden staircase and the hollow, hungry wind. We’re deep in the murk now, as disoriented morally as we are physically.

The hangings might be the most remarkable scenes, however. Strikingly blunt for a Hollywood film of the day—indeed, it’s hard to imagine a mainstream film of any era portraying violence in such stark and unappealing terms—the deaths of Perry and Dick are as chilling as the murders. And yet they must contend with one of the film’s major missteps: a reporter sort-of representing Capote (sans personality, and maybe 30 years older) who supplies intrusive narration about the men’s death-row days, finally capping off his useless presence by making belaboured points against capital punishment while chatting with another vagabond cipher.

But none of this can detract from the final shot itself. Capote notoriously ended the book with a fabricated scene in which chief investigator Alvin Dewey met one of Nancy Clutter’s friends at the town graveyard. This misplaced burst of overwrought sentiment was an astounding miscalculation for such a finely modulated book—he might as well have ended with Nancy waving goodbye from a passing cloud.

Brooks wisely cuts the scene right out. His version may not be the equal of the book, but for all its flaws, the film surpasses the source material here. There’s nothing to buffer us from the sting of seeing such a pathetic end to such pathetic lives. No mercy in a merciless world. There’s just the sharp snap of the trapdoor, the sudden jerk of the rope—and then a body swaying like a pendulum, while a heart beats in our ears, slower and slower and slower.

No comments: