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In Cold Blood

Photo by Pax Enterprises, Inc./Columbia Pictures

Saturated to the gills with true crime and made-up memoirs, we can’t easily reconstruct the shock and awe that greeted Truman Capote’s highfalutin 1965 “nonfiction novel” about the murder of an innocent Kansas family by two young men for $45 and a radio. Two years later, Capote gave his blessing to a breathless film adaptation by Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry), during the shooting of which the fame-addicted writer drove Brooks mad by showing up on set to kibitz with a disruptive crowd of fans and journalists. Why Capote liked the movie so much (or said he did) isn’t entirely clear, for though it’s a gripping piece of American Gothic, it’s as thematically timid as it is formally flamboyant. (Pauline Kael, dissenting from mostly admiring reviews, dismissed Conrad Hall’s black-and-white cinematography as tabloid photography.) Brooks’ expository screenplay doffs its cap to the intersection of the two Americas Capote saw in the case — one decent and God-fearing (in the movie, the ill-fated Clutter family are naively presented as total innocents), the other psychopathic and deceitful — and dutifully hints at a homoerotic bond between the killers. But there’s little sign of Capote’s worldly irony or his mandarin prose, in part because he is weakly represented in the film by a journalist  (“You’re not here to write news,” John Forsythe’s detective observes acidly) who’s no more than a standard noir iconoclast, and straight as a die too. For all its conventional psychodrama, In Cold Blood is primarily memorable for the fine acting of Robert Blake (he’s the one with qualms!) as the schizoid Perry Smith and, in particular, Scott Wilson, who’s just terrific as Dick Hickock, at once an all-American boy and a pure outsider and therefore the one who most interested Capote. I enjoyed Bennett Miller’s Capote, but I wonder what it says about our current cultural obsessions that today we are more fascinated by a celebrity journalist than by a pair of murderers willing to kill for no compelling reason. (Nuart)

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