Cinema in town

Capote's ‘In Cold Blood’ on Film: Hackneyed Sentimentality

by '69
Amherst Student

"In Cold Blood" had great potential as a film: an objective descent into a particularly American psychopathic form of needless wandering and rootless destruction. Instead, In the film we get a cheap, sentimentalized cliche-ridden lump of chicken dump.

The book presented a fascinating confrontation between two distinct cultures that inhabit both the seedy neon-gauzed "frontiers" and the breeze-soft suburbs of the mid-and-southwestern parts of this country. A violent, unnecessary clash between the puritan, righteous, ordered, linear world of the Clutter family, nested comfortably in their ranch in Holcomb, Kan., pillars of the community, and the chaotic, drifting, tormented domain of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the jungle-outlaws who slaughtered the Clutters one night one by one.

What was most interesting about the book was its lack of simplification, the killers' motives were not artificially psychoanalyzed; they were allowed to keep their stain of mystery. They were never cheapened into easily sympathetic, tragic "case histories." And judgments were not Truman Capote's purpose. Newsprint nightmares were. Just as the best pop art takes things we see before us constantly but never really notice and provides them with a new heightened "reality," Capote took an almost "common" incident in modern America, the kind we hear about at least once a month, mouthed in ice-hard dull tones by transparent newscasters. He took these "invisible" monstrosities and, by recreating one in far greater detail than is possible in newspapers, he made us really see it in all its absurd complexity for the first time. Logical chronologies became tinged with absurd coincidence, comfortable solutions blurred by hidden mysteries.

In the news, Hickock and Smith were monsters, or at best psychological mutations to be destroyed. In the book, it wasn't that easy. Sometimes they were amiable jokers, sometimes cruel sadists, sometimes confused children, sometimes victims, sometimes pawns. And most of the time American cowboys pulled from the whipped-mad buffalo range and slapped down lost and loose in a world of technological fury and residential restfulness, and they had to remain alien to both.

And the two cultures in the book were not completely distinct. They seemed to swim together a bit. Mrs Clutter underwent many brain operations, seemed to have symptoms of maniac-depression, had frightening visions, tormented dreams. She was almost a "cripple" and spent most of her time, isolated, alone in bed, cornered. Perry Smith suffered from a once-maimed leg that left him constantly bound in incredible pain, had terrifying visions, and still suffered the scare of a rigid, puritan, "righteous" childhood. He too was "alone." Both he and Mrs. Clutter were more sensitive than those around. One gets the feeling they might have talked to each other well, if he hadn't killed her first, giving them both time for just one more screaming vision.

In the film, the Clutter family is hardly dealt with, and Mrs. Clutter almost omitted. The "contrast of cultures" then is diluted completely. Cheap psychological flashbacks are hurled all over the place, destroying tension and turning the main characters into cliched "case histories." And the central murder scene is completely botched. The very moment that Perry kills Mr. Clutter, he sees a vision of his father in a furious temper. He shoots, within the vision, at his father. In effect, we are asked to believe that Perry thought he was killing his father, not Mr. Clutter. But even if Perry said this, which he didn't, in a movie it seems childish, gimmicky, and evasive. What is important in the film is not the psychological motivation at the moment of the act, it is the existential force of that act, its relation as a "physical event" to the character at the moment and after. In this scene, the major art loses its drive and reality, for it is detached from the substance of the moment in an unconvincing, arbitrary way. A stark flesh-spattered explosion turns into a vague, hazy dream filled with cliched psychologies and self conscious stylized motion.

The characters' sadism is severely reduced for "sympathy", and the execution is smothered with insipid, liberal, pious speeches about evils of capital punishment. Throughout, the hard, glaring surface of this book has been sponged into a flabby sluggish movie that absorbs every hackneyed device available. A final example is indicative: as Smith walks to the gallows, he looks up at the executioner. The face becomes that of his father, a simple ludicrous "identification" typical of this disappointing project.

Source: Amherst Student archives