On December 15th, 1959, two petty thieves broke into an isolated farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas, because they’d heard the farmer was rich. They didn’t find any money, so they shot all four members of the Clutter family in the head. They fled to Mexico, ran out of money, stupidly returned to Kansas, wrote some bad checks, got caught, and the plain folk of Kansas hung them from the neck until dead.
And that would have been that. But on the morning after the killings, a single column in the New York Times caught the attention of Truman Capote, the flamboyant novel, short story, and screen-writer. Ambition drew Truman to Holcomb almost at once. He knew the story would make his name.
The film Capote , based on Gerald Clarke’s biography, concerns the five years during which Truman midwifes his compulsive novel In Cold Blood . Truman, wonderfully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, becomes obsessed with one of the killers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) Like Perry, Truman was abandoned as a child, and as an obviously gay man from Alabama, identifies with half-Cherokee Perry’s sense of persecution. "It was like he and I grew up in the same house," Truman says, "but he stood up and walked out the back door while I walked out the front."
Perry is one of the great characters in modern novels, reminiscent of Pinky in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock . He is a study in contradictions. His upper half is muscled and tattooed; his legs, crippled by a motorcycle accident, are tiny and stiff. He was abandoned as a child by his drunken mother, and became a thug; but he has talent as an artist, and dreams of bettering himself by memorizing words like "mendacious," which come out as funny as his walk.
But wait a minute. We’re not just talking about a character in a book, are we? Though it is most inconvenient for Truman, Perry is alive, and he refuses to divulge what happened in that house the night of the murders. So Capote makes a Faustian bargain. He plies all of his enormous charm to convince a lonely and doomed man that he is his only friend. Then he wants Perry to hurry up and die, so the book can have its ending. But Perry won’t cooperate, getting stay after stay of execution.
Even on a temporary reprieve in Spain, in the sun with his boyfriend, the shadows cling to Truman. The guilt, and too much time in the company of death, prove too much for a sensitive man. Though Truman became the most famous novelist in America, he never wrote another novel. He was shunned by his friends and died of alcoholism. The movie, like the book, has its ending.
But it was Truman who elevated Perry from pathos to tragedy. It was Truman to whom Perry confessed; at his hanging, it was Truman’s eyes he sought, not the priest. Maybe Truman was only pretending to be a friend. But as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "We should be careful what we pretend to be – for we are what we pretend to be."
Capote may not be playing locally; check the listings. The Landmark Theater in Castleton is showing it on a bright, sharp screen with crisp sound. Also they sell beer. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.