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Movie Review: Capote

By Mike Everleth ⋅ February 21, 2006

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell‘s 1999 graphic novel From Hell is a mind-blowing treatise on the birth of modern evil based on the Jack the Ripper murders. The 2001 movie adaptation oversimplified the deep and complex book and turned it into a basic mystery. The book, however, shows us from the get go who Jack is and why he committed such atrocities.

Chapter 5 of the graphic novel opens with one of Moore’s most controversial sequences, wherein he ties the Ripper murders with the conception of Adolph Hitler. At the time Jack is slaughtering prostitutes in England, Klara Hitler gets pregnant by her husband Alois (for the fourth time) in Austria. Moore mucks around with the dates a little bit to make sure these two events coincide, but it is certainly a historical possibility that they did.

Truman Capote’s landmark non-fiction novel, In Cold Bood — which I read in high school — was published in January 1966 and details the November 15, 1959 murder in Kansas of the Clutter family by two ex-cons, Perry Smith and Dick Hancock. It was the kind of killing that nowadays could be a 24-7 type of news story covered by CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. An entire family brutally slaughtered for apparently no rhyme or reason. (It was a failed robbery attempt.) The killers were caught fairly quickly in just a matter of days, had a speedy — and possibly unfair — trial and were executed seven years later.

The Clutter killings aren’t quite the benchmark event like the Ripper murders and they probably would have passed quietly into history if Capote hadn’t written In Cold Bood. But, since he did, the event is a lampost on a gradual darkening of American culture in the post-war years, beginning two years earlier when on Nov. 16, 1957 in Wisconsin, Ed Gein killed store clerk Bernice Worden, carved her up like a deer and wore her skin so he could “dress up” like his dead mother and ending on Nov. 22, 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. And it would take a little more jiggering of dates than Alan Moore did, but at approximately the same time of the Clutter family massacre, Joyce Dahmer became pregnant with her son Jeffrey.

Capote the film, however, deals with none of this and focuses on the personal journey the author takes after deciding to write about the killings. The movie never explains what drew Truman to the case. He simply reads about it in the New York Times, even before the killers are caught and figures it would make a good article for the New Yorker magazine. But it’s obvious what keeps Truman interested: His evolving relationship with Perry, one of the killers.

The entire film hinges on and succeeds because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s uncanny performance. Hoffman goes beyond sheer mimicry to paint a complex portrait of the writer, from cutting up at NYC cocktail parties to sashaying into a small Kansas town and winning over it’s residents to forming a deep emotional bond with Perry Smith to abusing that relationship for his own selfish needs. While In Cold Bood would create a new American literary genre and pave the way for our current cultural obsession with crime and murder — including reality “news” shows like Dateline and 48 Hours; the forensic-centric C.S.I. franchise; cable news coverage of events like the murder of Laci Peterson; and so on — Capote of course worked his growing notoriety to become the most famous writer in the country. But only at the price of not ever publishing another book in his life.

Finally, one last note to my theme of murder here, the weekend before I saw Capote I went to dinner at Vitello‘s, the Italian restaurant outside of which Robert Blake‘s wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, was shot to death. They even have a dish called “the Robert Blake” (named before the tragic event due to Blake being a frequent customer — Vitello’s also serves “the Garry Marshall“), which I ordered. It’s a great family kind of Italian place with really excellent food. Blake also of course portrayed Perry Smith in the 1967 film version of In Cold Blood.