1959: the quadruple-murder of the Clutters shocks America. The apparently motiveless crime is eventually traced to two bungling would-be burglars, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who made off for their troubles with a handful of dollars and a wireless radio. 1966: tireless journalist Truman Capote publishes In Cold Blood, and reaches the undisputed summit of true-crime writing in so doing. 1967: the meticulously-shot b&w film adaptation of Capote’s factual novella hits cinema screens. 2015: that film is rereleased.
Firstly, it’s funny timing for it. What we’re commemorating here is – now pay attention, readers! – the fiftieth anniversary of Capote starting his reportage of the crimes. As I write this review, the crime itself is fifty-six years old; the classic novel a sprightly forty-nine; the actual film being released, a mere forty-eight. That said, you might well take the film to be older, so determined is director Richard Brooks to recreate the noir filmmaking of a generation previous.
It is this writer’s humble opinion that Brooks’ conceit doesn’t quite come off. His intensely impressionist style illuminates a certain homoerotic, Southern Gothic quality both to Capote’s writing and to the real-life events, which is nice; but, ironically, it looks back to period older not just than Capote’s writing, but way, way back, before the crime was even committed. In the year of Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Brooks insists directorially on a kind of mannered imitation of Night of the Hunter which blends uneasily with the psychological realism delivered by stars Scott Wilson and Robert Blake.
Wilson, as handsome and frighteningly charming as Robert Mitchum at his psychotic best, plays Dick Hickock, while a more layered and subdued Blake is Perry Smith. Brooks’ screenplay develops the characters in accordance with Capote’s narrative plan: Hickock is a sprightly, devilish, and compelling psychopath; while Smith is honest and tormented, with his murderous impulses treated as an almost forgivable development of his cracked upbringing and deep perception of the cruel world around him.
Together, the two form a single character as deeply realised and memorable as any number of tragic villains. Neither one of them would be a murderer in his own right, a forensic psychologist tells us as we near the climax, but together they formed a third person. One might be put in mind of the unprecedented American crime of this generation: Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. It is the psychology of the crime that gives the film its retaining interest in the modern era, but its rerelease misses a ghoulish trick here, commemorating nothing more special than the appearance of a magazine article. It was an article, at that, more memorable than most, but the timing of the rerelease, much like the film itself, is so determinedly indebted to Capote – to Capote more than to reality – that one wonders what the point is in it all.
But is it worth seeing? Maybe. There is, as I’ve said, a lamentable thoughtlessness in rereleasing a film in order to celebrate the sort-of anniversary of the book it’s based on. It’s arbitrary, and it really doesn’t hold enough significance to win the original new fans. To those who have seen it already, the primary interest must be in the restoration, and it can’t be faulted there. The black-and-white cinematography of the original aimed not at newsreel verisimilitude but rather a sort of expressionism suggestive of heat and evil, the effect being a weaker picture but a more visually interesting one, though the majority of images have a softness to them which makes the film less receptive to restoration than some of its contemporaries. But in sound it excels, with a mix so clear and well-balanced you might easily swear it was created yesterday. Sadly, Quincy Jones’ intense jazz score is all over the picture, sapping it of the slow intensity it ought to have; but that is the way it was released in ’67, and I’m sure I’d rather have the original as it was, even with its weaknesses, than some anachronism.