Had it happened last Friday rather than in the early morning hours of a Nov. 15 nearly two generations ago, had a couple of paroled two-bit crooks broken into a farmhouse in far-western Kansas and–in the course of a botched robbery–killed the entire family, including a 16-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy, it might have made the Wichita papers and perhaps even the Kansas City Star. No Hollywood producer’s assistant would have called. This was not, after all, the true story of an obsessed nymphet shooting the wife of her auto-mechanic lover; of a high-school teacher-cum-succubus luring a love-struck teen into murdering her husband; of a jealous former football star allegedly cutting his wife’s head nearly clean off, and getting away with it (with sequel possibilities!). The Clutter killings had no discernible sex angle, no infidelity, no incest, no interesting insanity. Two thugs killed four innocent people in cold blood. No story.
And yet, there it is, a four-hour CBS miniseries starring Anthony Edwards (“Fans knows him best as the lovable Dr. Mark Greene in the series ER“) as one killer, Eric Roberts as the other, and Sam Neill as the lawman. “Truman Capote’s book is a literary masterpiece,” miniseries executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. explained, “and, as such, is certainly worthy of reinterpretation almost 30 years after it was written.”
This is true. In Cold Blood is a masterpiece of a kind, not, as has been often alleged, as the first nonfiction crime novel–what was John Hersey’s Hiroshima, after all?–but as perhaps the truest work of fiction Capote ever wrote, and certainly the most passionate. It’s hard to argue against reinterpreting masterpieces from time to time. We’ve had a perfectly decent run of Austens lately, and not enough people saw Demi Moore’s sex-larded The Scarlet Letter for it to do much damage. Had this miniseries in fact been a reinterpretation, or even an interpretation, it might have been a worthy undertaking. But, somewhere along the way, the well-intentioned miniseries makers embraced the notion that In Cold Blood was A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, just as the book’s subtitle asserts. It is nothing of the sort.
Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were killers, but they were not responsible for “one of the most horrific and nonsensical multiple murders of this century,” as the publicity material claims. In the end, they weren’t even the most horrific murderers on their cellblock. They shared death row at the Kansas State Penitentiary for Men with the likes of Lowell Lee Wolcott, a 300-pound biology honor student who, one Thanksgiving holiday, shot and killed his entire family. They were later joined by George Ronald York and James Douglas Latham, two soldiers who went on a cross-country spree in 1961, killing seven people. That Smith and Hickock became more notorious was something of an accident.
O n Monday, Nov. 16, 1959, Truman Capote ran across a small story on Page 39 of the New York Times: wealthy farmer, three of family slain. An unsolved multiple murder in small-town America: a writing challenge, thought the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.“Everything would seem freshly minted,” he later told his biographer Gerald Clarke. “The people, their accents and attitude, the landscape, its contours, the weather. All this, it seemed to me, could only sharpen my eye and quicken my ear.” Capote went to William Shawn, who said something likely not heard in the halls of The New Yorker recently: “I thought that it could make some long and wonderful piece of writing.”
And so Capote left his fabulous Manhattan life for Holcomb, Kan., taking with him his childhood friend Harper Lee, who had just finished To Kill a Mockingbird and was up for some intrigue. But the original plan, to spend a couple of months and produce a portrait of a small town’s innocence lost, came abruptly to an end that Dec. 30, when Dick Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested.
These were classic losers: Dick, a check-kiting con man whose face had been rearranged in a car accident so that it looked, as Capote described it, “halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off-center”; and Perry, a cherub-faced dreamer whose legs had been mangled and considerably shortened in a motorcycle accident, making him only one inch taller than Capote. According to Clarke’s Capote: A Biography, when the itty-bitty author first spied Perry at the arraignment, he exclaimed, “Look, his feet don’t touch the floor!” Harper Lee thought, “Oh, oh! This is the beginning of a great love affair.”
Capote worked on the book for another six years, visiting Perry and Dick dozens of times and writing letters to each twice a week. He exchanged bursitis remedies with Perry and consoled Dick on his creeping baldness. He was there when they were both hanged April 14, 1965. The book Capote wrote reflects that intimacy; it is more the story of a love affair gone wrong than a murder mystery–or rather, of two love affairs: between Truman and Perry, and Perry and Dick, and–well, maybe three love affairs.
The Perry Smith of the book is an almost heartbreakingly unlovable loser: with a mother, like Capote’s, a drunken whore; himself addicted, not unlike Capote, to aspirin; tortured by nuns for wetting the bed; a would-be gold prospector who had seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre eight times; a desperately self-educated man who sprinkled his speech with big words he didn’t really know. Capote’s Dick Hickock, in contrast, was a low-life hunk of all-man, a fast-talking braggart with a taste for “blonde chicken,” whose slight, seemingly sunken-chested figure upon “disrobing revealed … nothing of the sort, but rather, an athlete constructed on a welterweight scale,” his spry body an “inky gallery” of homemade tattoos. He also had an IQ of 130, according to prison tests.
Capote’s Perry would follow Dick anywhere, even while fussily correcting his grammar. Dick, in turn, was in the habit of referring to Perry as “honey,” as in, “I promise you, honey, we’ll blast hair all over them walls.”
“Those walls,” corrected Perry.
Dick and Perry bicker about how much rope they will need to tie up the Clutters. Dick and Perry shop for Perry’s wedding “trousseau.” Dick and Perry yacht off Mexico with a frisky Hamburg lawyer, who does “nude studies” of Dick. Perry goes berserk when Dick invites a drunken puta to their room. Dick threatens to leave Perry to return to the States. He does. Perry follows.
It’s not really subtext. Anita Loos hailed In Cold Blood as “a Homeric poem,” and she was only a couple of letters off. This is a cold-blooded love story, Capote’s paean to Perry’s desire for the man he wishes he was–the man who flirts with his affections, but ultimately betrays him. (Dick fingers Perry as the sole killer during a routine interrogation.) It almost doesn’t matter whether Perry felt this way about Dick, or whether it was actually Capote who dreamed of diving for Mexican treasure with his tattooed welterweight. Much has been made of the restraint Capote showed in keeping himself out of the book (compared to, say, The Executioner’s Song), but he’s there on every page.
Capote does pay dutiful attention to those poor dead Clutters: Herb, the sensible patriarch; nervous mother Bonnie, who has been hospitalized several times for her condition; Nancy, the most popular girl in Holcomb; and Kenyon, whose sneaky smoking is meant to suggest he is troubled. But it is almost impossible to read these passages of near-perfect Americana without imagining Capote regaling Babe Paley with Tales of the Sticks. At any rate, a reader finds himself skimming past them to get back to Perry and Dick.
For the original 1967 movie version, director Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry) insisted on shooting in black-and-white and resisted studio pressure to cast Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as the killers. Instead, he chose relative unknowns Scott Wilson and Robert Blake. Brooks was also fetishistic about verisimilitude. He filmed in the Clutters’ home and tracked down Nancy Clutter’s real horse for a single scene. Not only did he shoot in the real courtroom, but seven of the 12 actors in the jury box were actual jurors from the trial. Dick and Perry’s hangman was played by their real-life executioner.
And yet for all the artifacts, In Cold Blood the movie doesn’t reflect the crime so much as the author’s subconscious. Dick and Perry are the stars, stone-cold killers, but cool. Baby booties hanging from the rearview mirror, handsome, sneering Dick and leather-jacketed brooding Perry barrel in a black sedan toward Holcomb to a Beat jazz soundtrack (courtesy of Quincy Jones), strongly suggesting James Dean and Marlon Brando, the wild ones, rebels without a conscience. This was the age of anti-heroes–Bonnie and Clyde had been released four months before–but Brooks’ Perry and Dick are creatures of the 1950s, not the 1960s. Their dialogue, most of it, is pure pulp fiction:
dick: The perfect score needs perfect partners. Together, we’re a perfect fit.perry: It’s your score. Where do I fit in?dick: I got you figgered for a natural-born killer. Unless you lied about that punk in Vegas.perry: Nodick: Why’d you kill him?perry: No special reason.dick: That’s the best reason of all.
Suggestions in the book become statements here. When Perry tries to beg off the “perfect score” at the last minute, Dick unloads: “You don’t think I’ve got the guts to do it? Well, I’ll show you who’s wearing the pants. How’d you kill that guy in Vegas anyhow? Love him to death?”
As artless as it sometimes is, the movie is that: a movie, a stylish translation of the book into something else. One can debate whether homoerotic rebel noir was the appropriate genre choice, but it was a choice. CBS’ In Cold Blood, on the other hand, is deadly loyal to the facts Capote unearthed, as flat as Kansas itself.
Capote once complained about the movie (which he never cared for much) that “[t]here wasn’t enough on the Clutter family” in it. It’s too bad he isn’t alive to see the miniseries. We get to see the Clutters aplenty. Herb talks to farmhand; Nancy bakes a cherry pie; Bonnie shows her collection of miniatures to a neighbor girl; Kenyon sneaks a cigarette while listening to his portable radio. Whole pages of Clutter dialogue are lifted from the book and recited in much the same way the real Clutters might have said them, if they were reading from a book. The overall effect is something like suspense: You can’t wait for Perry and Dick to kill them.
The miniseries does take some liberties; this is sweeps month. For example, a minor subplot of the book–Nancy’s father wants her to begin seeing less of her boyfriend–takes on Romeo and Juliet proportions. And it’s hard to know what to say about Edwards’ Dick and Roberts’ Perry without sounding mean. ER.’s lovable Dr. Greene apparently decided that Dick was an opportunity to Act Bad, and he does, with the considerable aid of a thick Frankensteinian scar appliquéd beneath his left eye (which appears in neither the book nor any pictures of Dick Hickock); Dick loses about 50 IQ points in this portrayal, and has developed a low, dumb drawl and a hyuhhyuhhyuh laugh. He is a Natural-Born Butthead.
Roberts has made a career of chewing up slimy killers (Star 80) and explosive sidekicks (The Pope of Greenwich Village), but, for once in his life, he has decided to underact. His Perry is primarily defined by the knock-kneed cripple walk Roberts has given him; for all I know it may be orthopedically correct, but it just looks like he has to pee.
Ironically, the miniseries misses its one opportunity to inject some perverse sexuality, a staple of the genre. The relationship between Dick and Perry is chaste to the point of nonexistence; Dick is simply a red-blooded boy (in real life, he was also a pedophile) whom Perry hangs out with because he has nothing better to do. But while the miniseries is careful to expunge all Dick’s homophobic rantings, it makes free use of the word “nigger,” which the 1967 movie avoided. Just shows how times have changed.
As for the death-penalty arguments that occupy the last quarter of the book and overwhelmed the first movie, well, there’s none of that. Dick and Perry are found guilty, and they’re executed. It is a hallmark of what the miniseries really thinks of the book that it shows the wife of lawman Sam Neill reading an account of the execution in the paper the next morning. “The crime was a psychological accident,” she reads, “virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning.” This is a phrase taken directly from the book, and is practically its thesis.
“This is just junk,” the woman says, putting down the paper.