Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New on Blu: "In Cold Blood"

When Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was published in 1966, it created a sensation in literary circles for its innovative style, resulting in a work dubbed by the author as the "nonfiction novel"--the storytelling techniques of fiction, applied to a factual narrative. These days, the form goes by a less reputable moniker: "true crime." Richard Brooks' 1967 film adaptation is a similar marriage of distinctively different approaches, combining a flat, documentary-style realism with stylized neo-noir photography. The resulting picture hasn't lost any of its power in the forty-plus ensuing years; it has a cold, chilling immediacy, while feeling simultaneously like pages ripped from an aged, lurid tabloid.

The novel and film are an account of the 1959 murder of the Clutters, a farming family in Holcomb, Kansas. The killers, Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) came to the house on the strength of a jailhouse rumor, in search of Herb Clutter's cash-stuffed safe; when the search for the fictional safe came up dry, the pair murdered Herb, his wife Bonnie, daughter Nancy, and son Kenyon. They made off with about $42, a radio, and a pair of binoculars.

The first act of the film follows Smith and Hickock, old prison buddies, as they meet up in Kansas City (Smith has just been paroled) and head across Kansas for the job, which Hickock claims to be a "perfect score." These opening scenes seem to build dread without even trying; screenwriter/director Brooks is acknowledging what we know is coming, and follows the events with a sense of inevitability. Brooks only steps wrong in his portrait of the idyllic Clutter family; these scenes are way overdone, with Quincy Jones's otherwise pitch-perfect score turning instantly phony, and the irony of the scene between Herb Clutter and a life insurance salesman coming off as merely heavy-handed.

When the pair arrives at the Clutter home (Brooks shot in this and several other real locations), Smith looks out the car window and utters, "Let's get out of here, now. Before it's too late." As Capote did before, Brooks does not follow them into the home; he cuts to the next morning, when the bodies are discovered, and does not reveal exactly what happened within until a climax flashback. Once the bodies are found, the film switches from a moody road crime story to a police procedural, as the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, led by Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe, straight as an arrow), attempts to track down the killers. Once Dewey is established, the film crosscuts between his investigation and Smith and Hickock's half-assed escape, tightening the narrative, the net of the law getting closer and closer to snagging the pair.

Brooks utilizes inventive narrative bridges throughout the story, as scene changes are triggered by a word, a phrase, a visual cue; throughout the film, he seems more interesting in working the tone, and downplaying the sensationalism (their actual arrest happens off-camera). His primary aim (and Capote's) is to get into these characters' heads, both in the up-close characterizations and occasional aesthetic tricks (like the striking dream/nightmare/fantasy motifs).

Though Blake found TV stardom in the subsequent decade as Baretta, his work as Perry Smith was so vivid and convincing, it cast a shadow over the performances that followed (and seemed a strike against him when he was on trial for the murder of his wife in 2001). His Perry is emotional, frequently tortured, clearly pained, but capable of a brusque flatness ("I thought Mr. Cutter was a real nice gentleman. I thought it to the moment I cut his throat) that is downright chilling. He's seen more sympathetically than Dick, who Wilson compellingly plays with a combination of dangerous swagger and implicit cowardice; everything you need to know about Hickock can be found in the creepy, nonchalant way Wilson says, of the young Clutter daughter, "They're never too young."

In spite of their actions and obvious flaws, through mere access and proximity, we allow ourselves to almost develop something akin to sympathy for these men in their travels, to laugh with them on occasion, or to (at the very least) identify the battered elements of their psyches that have made them the way they are. That is why the hour between the crimes and the recreation of them is not just a trick, but a masterstroke; having spent that time with them, their brutality is all the more horrifying. The narrative also builds in a degree of psychological suspense--we know what has happened, but what wonder who exactly did what, if Hickock's tough-guy act was just bravado, if Smith's apparent softness prevented him from pulling the trigger. And this is where the dynamic between the two men comes into play; Brooks and his actors subtly hint at several possible levels of complexity in their relationship, from co-dependence to competitiveness to possibly even attraction or more. "This is between us," Smith says, in the moment before the violence begins. "It's got nothing to do with them."

The murders maintain their ability to shock and unnerve--this is truly terrifying filmmaking. But as in the great 60s art/horror films, it's in the montage and the suggestion, in the pounding, forceful way the music overtakes the soundtrack, in the visceral, wince-inducing power of the cold, unforgiving visuals. The trial and execution that follow are handled perfunctorily, primarily as formalities and afterthoughts, and the sudden appearance of narration and a Capote surrogate character are ill-advised. But the desperation of Blake's closing scenes is palpable, and his work is spot-on--particularly in his last speech, played in the justifiably famous shot in which rain on the windowpane he faces appears like tears running down his cheeks. (Enough superlatives cannot be heaped upon Conrad Hall's exquisite, evocative cinematography.) But that speech is also the kind of "explained behavior" that infected so many of the era's Serious Movies, and ditto the Capote stand-in's distractingly on-the-nose closing commentary. Those missteps, however, are very nearly negated by the punishing bluntness of the merciless final moments.

In spite of occasional stumbles in the run-up and the wind-down, In Cold Blood remains a vital, powerful, and ultimately timeless work. It's not a fun watch--the physical and psychological violence are, in places, downright punishing, and the film's occasionally sympathetic view of the murderers at its center still angers some viewers. But the craft is simply flawless.

"In Cold Blood" was originally released as a two-disc set with "Capote." The stand-alone Blu-ray release debuts on Tuesday, September 7th. For full A/V details, read this review at DVD Talk.

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