The whole thing is eerie and yet oddly familiar. The brutal slaying on November 15th, 1959, of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas was one of the first ‘home invasion’ stories that shook America to the core for the sheer brutality of the crime. It unsettled the population not just in Holcomb, but everywhere.
Of course, the book, In Cold Blood, written by Truman Capote, is about these killings and if we are to trust the film Capote, he got the idea from the press clipping in the New York Times the next morning and then telephoned his editor at the New Yorker (William Shawn at the time, who had a long and impressive tenure before Tina Brown was appointed editor) and said simply, “I’ve found my next story.” Soon, what started out as an article quickly became a full-length book that would take consume several years of Capote’s life.
No doubt a great deal of research went into the making of Capote just as Capote put four years of his own life into the making of the book In Cold Blood and getting to know the murderers themselves, even to the point of having mixed feelings about them – on the one hand seeing and knowing what they were capable of, and yet also seeing them as men and not monsters. As Capote says in the film, “It is as if he (Perry) and I had grown up in he same house…only he went out the back door and I went out the front.”
In the final account, all of this matters, but the highlight of this film is really the acting of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, along with a terrific supporting cast of characters such as Catherine Keener as Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird) and Chris Cooper as the detective on the case. Nobody could have played Capote as convincingly as Hoffman does, down to the voice, the mannerisms, the quick wit, and the self-interested aspect of Capote’s character that could be cruel and even manipulative to get what he wanted, which is exactly what he did with the two men indicted for the Kansas murders – Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino).
It was Perry especially that he led along, constantly pumping him for more information for his book, even to the point of providing both convicted felons with better counsel to keep them alive longer, for purposes of getting yet more information for his book.
No doubt, Capote never thought for a second that they stood a chance of getting off or even of winning a stay of execution which would have drawn out the writing of the book long after Capote had most of the information he needed. At a certain point, it became a grim death vigil as Capote waited for the men to die (by hanging) so that he could finish he book, and although the title was decided upon about mid-point in the process, he tells Perry Smith, “I don’t yet have a title; I haven’t written a word,” an outright and self-serving lie to keep Perry talking, as Capote not only had a title, but was on the final and last part of the book.
In the final account, he is like anyone doing his job: to show the book to Perry would be to lose a major resource, as the book did not present Perry in the light he would no doubt have wanted – as a sort of wrongly convicted cowboy expecting a great deal of sympathy. And why not? Why shouldn’t he think this? Capote leads him properly up the garden path and, in his gentle and sympathetic manner, pumps him for as much information as possible, eventually getting around to the night of the actual murders.
Perry does come to trust Capote, even to the point of turning over his personal diaries (no doubt invaluable in a case like this), even writing Capote postcards signed “Amigo.” What Perry fails to see in his naïveté is that, as Truman tells him toward the end, “This is my job.” He may have seemed to befriend Perry, but in reality, he has lied to him throughout to get what he wants: a means to an end.
In effect, Capote uses both men, but most especially Perry, to get the information that he needs for his book and he succeeds, with Hoffman’s performance, smoothly, convincingly, moving in like a friendly snake who will eat you when he’s done with you or a game of cat and mouse in which the mouse will eventually die, of course, only Capote tells lie after lie to the convicted killer, even telling him that he does not have a title for the book when he is three quarters into it and just waiting for the last chapter to see how it will end – in execution, which he likely knows well yet cannot rightly finish the book until there is some real resolution.
But the story is not unfamiliar to most Capote fans (who had read the book) or even movie buffs that had seen the original film, In Cold Blood, starring James Woods. But here it is truly Hoffman who has captured the fey, the original, the selfish, the generous, the loving and the cold and the very real emotions that Capote felt and the conflicting feelings he seems to have felt over the two killers, on the one hand seemingly having some empathy yet at the same time, after visiting the funeral home where the family is being waked, he cannot resist a peek inside each coffin, and what he sees is gruesome.
The Clutter family are laid out in their best clothes – pretty, staid, in character for this part of the country with one exception, their faces and heads are twice the size of “a blown up balloon” and are covered in a white cotton gauze that has been sprayed with something lending a twinkling Christmas tree effect, Capote tells us. Each member of the Clutter family was shot in the face or head.
To note, Perry had done his best to make each family member comfortable before killing them – an odd fact. He had tucked the daughter into bed, prevented his partner from raping the young girl, had placed a pillow under the brother’s head and provided a box for Mr. Clutter to stand on to relieve the pressure of his arm and hand which had been chained to a pipe in the basement. Then something went off in Perry and he slit Mr. Clutter’s throat very suddenly and then went quickly from room to room, shooting each family member point blank.
Capote may be fey, he may come across as less serious than he really is and the chief officer on the crime, played incredibly and believable by Chris Cooper, remains less than convinced that Capote is up to any good, but is kind to him nonetheless, realizing the men have more in common than originally thought.
Cooper does warm up in time, but you have to imagine a small town detective trying to manage and understand this effete New York boy who has honed in to write a book about the biggest tragedy that Holcomb has ever seen. It seems almost gruesome and while perhaps as writer to writer, we can understand Capote’s motives, it does seem a bit grisly and one wonders how well he slept after seeing some of the things he did see. The Holcomb murders were particularly grisly – not to say that any murder isn’t but these we particularly gruesome in part because of the remote location, the tying of each family, the desperate pleading we can hear from Mr. Clutter as he insists there is no ten thousand dollars and losing his life because of it. As Perry says, “He [Mr. Clutter] looked at me like I was the kind of guy that would kill him. Like he was afraid of me. It was then that I cut his throat.”
It is almost because he was expected or assumed to be a killer that Perry became one. Other than that, he seemed like an okay guy, which sounds completely perverse but is the truth. Perry (and this is why Capote managed a relationship with him) was in many ways quite a gentle man who kept extensive journals, who drew, who was part Indian, who was relatively peaceful – that is, until he shot the Clutter family to death. At least in the film adaptation he doesn’t seem like a bad guy; he seems like a perfectly normal guy, but then, so many killers seem quite normal on the surface of things. Never judge the book, right? Ted Bundy is a great reminder of this.
Given the dozens of stories in The New York Times every day, one wonders why the Clutter family in particular struck a nerve with Capote, but it did, and he wasn’t alone in this somewhat macabre fascination. The murders shook everyone one in the country; and it shook and stirred something in Capote, enough that it would produce arguably his finest work. In Cold Blood was the last book Capote would ever completely finish; other books and stories exist but all remain unfinished. At last, after four years of research, of living and breathing the Clutter case and the two convicts and thousands of pages of transcripts and interviews and journals, Capote had a painstakingly accurate book entitled simply In Cold Blood.
Capote’s research is impeccable. But as any good writer will tell you, research is more than half the battle. Get that down and the rest of the story comes more easily, and so it is that through a series of intimate interviews, even having the killers mug for a professional shoot in The New Yorker, Capote gains their trust to his own benefit, never really for their benefit no matter what Capote may have said at the time. Most of his deeds were self-serving.
Perhaps Capote was drawn to the story because of some ability to relate to Perry Smith, although he could not have known this at the time. For whatever reason, the Clutter case appealed greatly to the writer, perhaps because it was so dark and so unusual for the time. Perhaps because these were ordinary people (as he himself had been to some smaller extent), but ultimately what kept him involved was yes, the story and the knowledge that this could and would propel him to greater heights if done right and some prescience that this would strike a chord with the American public. A book on the subject, like any book about killers or true crime, would tend to sell well. Do it Capote-style and it will sell and be written extremely well – a genre unto itself.
Much of the photo-shoot (for The New Yorker, presumably) is sickening, stomach curdling to see these cold-blooded killers mugging for the camera, each knowing full well that the murders had brought celebrity to their names. The sad truth is, it did.
America simply could not turn away from this awful crime no matter how much it may have wanted to. In the photographs, they are showing off their tattoos, their muscles, their cheap smiles, their tattoos, rather ironically, of religious conviction paired with daggers and skulls. The minds of the two were never, it seems, entirely made up as to who they were or where they were going. It should be no surprise then that they found themselves in the middle of Kansas in a small town like Holcomb, though it seems this much was planned, that although murdering the family was never part of the plan, it happened regardless.
Perhaps the inability to turn away was that home invasions were not yet as prevalent or commonplace as they have become today. Turn on the news now and you’ll see a home invasion at least every two weeks, with murder, rape and the killers getting away with a few bucks (as the killers in In Cold Blood escaped with no more than “$50 dollars total”).
As it turned out, they had botched the job entirely and selected the wrong house. They were in search of another house that they believed had about $10,000 dollars or so hidden in a safe, though whether or not such a house even existed is hard to verify.
The story is fascinating in and of itself but it is the ever-morphing Seymour Phillip Hoffman who carries this role. His manner is perfect, the lines well delivered and even more, he seems to pull off looking like Capote, and while part of this is costume, more than a good half of it is facial expression and manner, including a tone of voice that is almost bang on the money. Clearly, Hoffman too did his research for this role as he seems to do for every role he is in, whether star or not; every time we see him, he is transformed.
This is not the Freddie Miles of The Talented Mr. Ripley or any such film. One is absorbed right away into the character and the atmosphere of the film: the flatlands of Kansas, the simplicity, the harsh winter, and awfulness of what had occurred.
Capote believed that destiny had handed him In Cold Blood and that it was the book he was meant to write. Fate had led him to that story in The New York Times that morning. Perhaps this is likewise the role Hoffman was destined to play – let’s just hope he keeps acting and doesn’t stop as our Capote ceased to write after this book. More likely, this role can only propel Hoffman more into the spotlight and the further fame which he so well deserves for this and other roles.
One should note that as grisly as this film may be, there are some very funny (read: laugh out loud) scenes simply because of the way Capote was that one can’t help but laugh along with him. Even when that razor sharp wit of his seems cruel, it still comes across as funny and maybe we feel a little guilty for laughing at things that we shouldn’t. His cutting wit can be, at times, quite cruel, and worst of all, he involves and engages us in it so we laugh along with him.
It is the same dry wit used in Breakfast at Tiffany’s with the ever-graceful and still sorrowful Holly Golightly and her fifty-dollars-for-the-powder-room – a life full of a false glamour, both sad and glittering at the same time and all with a pervasive melancholy.