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Violent Movies

In Cold Blood

directed by Richard Brooks, produced by Richard Brooks

Bonnie and Clyde

directed by Arthur Penn, produced by Warren Beatty

If Richard Brooks is interested in art rather than in money, he should never have made In Cold Blood. One feels throughout the film that his heart wasn’t in it: the mechanical, plodding pace of the editing suggests a director fighting his way through the material. He has sprinkled primer psychology throughout the script to explain Perry and Dick’s behavior but it serves only to show that Brooks did not understand it—nor, for my money, did Capote. Most revealing was the attempt to make the picture “authentic.” A vast amount of time and energy was spent on this irrelevant preoccupation perhaps for no other reason than to fill an otherwise empty script. Brooks has slavishly followed the structure of the book, a structure that was weak to begin with, consciously trying to create a cinematic equivalent of the “nonfiction novel” with all its supposed authenticity. Yet even if there were such a thing as a “non-fiction novel” its translation into film would presumably involve more than simple mimicry. The movie seems perfunctory, as if Brooks did not really direct it, but only organized it.

What does it mean, after all, to have an actor who looks like Perry playing Perry? Are we to believe the movie is therefore closer to the truth? What truth? John Forsythe’s physical resemblance to the actual investigator of the Clutter case is equally meaningless. The movie is false, of course, as all movies are—a long strip of film put together in such a way as to create controlled illusions in the audience. A film cannot be a recreation of history for all the obvious reasons—its collapse of time, etc. More important, however, no one knows enough about what happened on the Clutter farm on the night of the murders. Capote collected statistics and talked to the two boys long after the event, but how could he know what really happened? In Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky knew precisely what happened, at all levels of reality, between Raskolnikov and the old money lender. But in reportage, a writer can only guess. Capote collected trivial details, and Brooks cast look-alikes, in order to create the illusion of reality, as if all one had to do to understand Caesar’s death was to make a map of his murderer’s movements on the steps of the Forum.

There is more to the question of authenticity in this film than aesthetic confusion. A fine line was crossed when the decision was made to use the actual Clutter house instead of a set, or even a recreation of the house. This choice suggests not so much confusion as an obscene fascination with death, a morbid lust for the sensational. What possible point can there have been in using the actual house except to turn on the cast, the director, and the crew to some cuckoo kicks?

Indeed, despite the big money and big names associated with In Cold Blood, a case can be made that it comes out of the tradition of the blue movie, with violence instead of sex as its subject: the film has the stock characters, instantly recognizable, whose shallowness makes the job of moving them around within a crude dramatic framework all the easier; it has the early promise of an exciting payoff and a long, salacious build-up to that payoff; and, finally, it has the theme of “moral concern.” The gratuitous capital punishment issue in In Cold Blood is used in much the same way as the theme of sexual-excess-leads-to-suicide in Park Avenue Mistress, which I recently saw in my local skin house. Renata Adler of the Times pointed out that the Clutters exist only to be killed. Well, in Park Avenue Mistress the heroine exists only to be fucked. A “good” pornographic film, which would presumably be straightforward and unapologetic, is possible, of course. In Cold Blood, however, is a meat picture by default; it becomes pornographic on the sly, largely because nothing else is happening. It puts us through two harrowing hours for no reason at all. It is not the violence itself that is wrong, not the killing of the Clutters nor the drawn-out hangings of Perry and Dick, but the fact that the violence is used to no end, and, thus isolated, is made obscene.

HOW CURIOUS that while a supposedly respectable, “serious” film like In Cold Blood turns out to be perverse sensationalism, the flashy, deliberately violent Bonnie and Clyde is relatively interesting. It suggests that for all but a handful of first-rate directors movie-making involves more luck than we have been led to believe, and that particularly now, when the traditional movie assembling techniques of the big studio factories have become obsolescent, most directors are floundering bravely in the dark, reshuffling their highly detailed, expensive blueprints, and finally surrendering in the cutting room to whatever they have somehow got on film. Certainly Bonnie and Clyde was easier to dig on the film editor’s moviola than In Cold Blood. While Brooks staring into the box may have searched in vain for any rhythm in those stiff images he’d photographed, Arthur Penn had only to swing with the increasing pace of violence in his film.

Bonnie and Clyde is an action picture about criminals, a hip variation on an old form in which violence has a specific symbolic meaning—the irreversible separation of the criminal from society, and his special mortality. In Bonnie and Clyde, the violence is paced with the meticulousness one usually associates with music, and relates throughout to other themes in the movie—escape, speed, innocence, ignorance, loneliness. Moreover, the violence is not, however much there is of it, an end in itself but is put to use to dramatize the helplessness of a pair of weak young people rushing toward an early death. It is not, therefore, salacious. However shocking the famous scene in which Bonnie and Clyde are machine-gunned to death may be, it is certainly not gratuitous. Indeed, the excessive violence of their deaths is entirely appropriate literally and symbolically: the police hysterically keep shooting, because they are attempting to destroy a myth, while the audience witnesses some artful images (the pear exploding in the air, the dead bodies, animated by the force of the impacting bullets) which convincingly reinforce our sense of mortality and of the fragility of the pair. Death simply arrives, with more strength than anyone can imagine, and the corpses jump like puppets.

THE HERO AND HEROINE are figures in a myth, human sacrifices to a society which must at once deify and destroy them. They believe in themselves because of their publicity, and become precisely what society wants them to be. In this, their innocence is poignant. The dreamlike violence into which they periodically descend is in exact contrast to their fragility. The real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were undoubtedly nothing at all like Dunaway and Beatty, the real story was quite unlike the technicolor fantasy; but can we doubt that in the minds of the newspaper readers of that time the myth was closer to Penn’s movie? It is this myth that is important. Bonnie and Clyde is “authentic” only where authenticity is possible—cars, clothes, architecture; beyond that it is a dream, although one with particular meaning. With the myth, one approaches some truth about America, and even if one never quite gets there, the effort is bracing.

Which is not to say that Bonnie and Clyde is a great movie. It is marred by touches of vulgarity—the mannered, derivative acting style of the cartoon-faced Michael Pollard, the sappy theme of impotence, the nerve-wracking acting of the hysterical sister-in-law, Warren Beatty’s camp. But it is a movie, not a photograph album like In Cold Blood.

BOTH FILMS attempt to present criminals in an artificially favorable light, and both suffer for it. There was no technical need to suggest that Perry and Dick were good guys underneath—for years audiences have been identifying with Richard Widmark’s giggling lust and Peter Lorre’s nasty interest in little girls—unless it was to support the capital punishment theme, a theme that not only doesn’t work, but reverses itself: indeed, In Cold Blood strikes me as effective propaganda for capital punishment, not an easy thing to accomplish these days. Of course, Brooks had to begin with two essentially dull criminals who had committed an unfathomable act of violence. For that reason he may have been forced to rely on a “psychology” which suggested that the two boys started off pure and were poisoned by an impure world. But the emphasis on the boys’ hidden, seminal sweetness perhaps most accounts for the film’s evasiveness.

Penn’s prettifying of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow was perhaps a more conscious effort to order the material; as in folk songs, where a lyric written a hundred years ago about a not very pretty girl is passed from singer to singer and generation to generation, while the girl gets prettier. Nonetheless, it was a mistake; the myth could have otherwise been served and a richer though less glossy movie could have been made.

Both movies tend to shy away from ugliness or at least to externalize it. Society is wicked, not the people. In this sense both reflect the liberal cliché that evil is an error that can somehow be patched up by men of good will: give Perry a decent childhood, cure Clyde of his impotence, improve our prisons…. How much more interesting both movies would have been had the people making them possessed the nerve, or the imagination, to follow where the subject so clearly led, to the darker mysteries of character.

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