Thursday, July 26, 2012

In Capote Blood: the image of a killer

Recently I showed a detective magazine article on the criminal Barrow Gang, known mainly for its two famous members, Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie and Clyde were thugs, probably not worth their legendary status as outlaws. They were bank robbers and killers who achieved notoriety from the news media, and then they were killed in an ambush by a heavily armed posse. It’s interesting why some killers get historical status and others get a few minutes of infamy, then fade away.

I watched the movie Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and marveled (again) that two cretins, Dick Hickok and Perry Smith, murderers of a Kansas farm family in 1959, have historical status as celebrity criminals. That status has everything to do with author Truman Capote, who wrote In Cold Blood, a “non-fiction novel” which became a super best seller, and spawned a well-made hit movie. Hickok and Smith were no criminal geniuses. As crooks they were flops. After killing a whole family, their haul was a few dollars, They expected to find a safe with $10,000. The $10,000 was one of those underworld rumors from a cellmate of Hickok’s, who had once worked for Clutter.

My copy of the original edition of the book.

Although I've seen Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman before, this time I paid particular attention to the portrayal of Hickok and Smith. Unlike the morbid movie version of In Cold Blood, sympathy for the killers isn’t poured on. I knew it was disproportionate when my sister-in-law saw In Cold Blood and said, “I felt so sorry for Perry.” That would be the same Perry who slaughtered a tied-up and helpless family with a shotgun and administered a coup de grace by cutting a throat. His life story is sad, but so are the life stories of many people who don't kill. Perry Smith brought about the inevitable outcome to his miserable existence when he pulled the trigger on innocent victims. The era in which the movie was made had a strong anti-establishment sentiment in the air. A criminal was a rebel, sticking it to the man! Right on, bro! Criminals were sometimes portrayed as misguided souls, sent into their criminal acts by forces beyond their control. Well, sure. We all have forces beyond our control. At times we are all misguided souls. Even if a life story is horrible beyond belief, there's nothing in anyone’s life to justify or excuse murder. I don't know how much Perry Smith conned or cajoled Capote. The author was reportedly attracted to Smith, who used that attraction to his advantage. But Capote told the story as he saw it, and then his image of Perry Smith was put in the hands of a filmmaker, Richard Brooks, who directed the movie. It confirmed in grim black and white the impression of Smith that Capote had made.

Both movies, Capote with Hoffman, and Infamous, with Toby Jones, tell the story of Capote writing the book and interactions with Smith. I haven't seen Infamous in years. (It's apparently not in cable circulation like Capote.) I recall an awfully good performance by Toby Jones, but wondered why Daniel Craig was picked to play Perry Smith. I believe the use of actors who weren't movie stars (Clifton Collins, Jr in Capote, Robert Blake in the 1967 In Cold Blood) made for more believable Perry Smiths than a man who plays James Bond.

(That would be three film visions of a worthless killer. Not bad for keeping his name alive, eh?)

All the Capotes: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Truman Capote, and Toby Jones.

As you can see from the spread in the May 12, 1967 issue of Life magazine the movie was a big and important event, well-hyped, as was the best selling book before it.

Like other fame-seeking creative types, Capote was more famous than any of his books. His books have a lasting place in literary history and will be read generations from now, but Capote also used his celebrity as well as his odd appearance and effeminate mannerisms to create a persona. He made himself into a greater character than almost anyone in his books except, perhaps, Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. But like Hitchcock's association with his movies, Capote's books are probably better known because of him than the subject matter.

According to the movie Capote, after In Cold Blood Capote never finished another book. He died a few years later from complications of alcoholism.

Article Copyright © 1967, 2012 Time-Life

NOTE; I wrote this post before the Colorado theater shootings by James Holmes. Time will tell whether his name will go down in infamy.


Kirk said...

According to a biography of Capote written in the late '80s, he may have felt guilty about IN COLD BLOOD, which in turn may have accelerated his downward spiral into drugs and alcohol. Not because about arguably glamourizing a couple of killers (I tend to think it was a bit more complicated than that), but because of Hickock amd Perry's ultimate fate. Capote couldn't finish his book until he knew exactly what their fate was going to be, as the appeals went on for years. The killers lawyers asked Capote to intervene on their behalf, which he refused to do. Capote was reportedly relieved when they finally used up all their appeals, thus giving the book an ending. Until he witnessed the actual execution, that is, which apparently traumatized him. This may have contributed to him including insanity defense arguments from pschiatrists in the latter part of the book, arguments not used in the actual trial.

Despite being anti-death penalty, and portraying the killers in a sympathetic manner, Capote could be surprisingly conservative on law and order issues. He was against the Supreme Court Miranda ruling, for instance. He also made a lot of friends in the law-and-order community, including the cops who solved the IN COLD BLOOD MURDER, and even invited them to his famous masked ball.

Postino said...

Thanks for your comments, Kirk. Capote was indeed a complicated and driven person, and might be a good example of how fame can destroy an artist, by making him bigger than the story.

I haven't read the Capote bio you mention, but I think more research on his interesting life is in order.

I didn't mention that Harper Lee figured into both of the movie versions of his writing In Cold Blood, and some critics have wondered aloud if she had anything to do with the actual writing. I've always been curious to know if there was anything to that story.