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…

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