Judge Clark Douglas thinks this is a devastatingly dark double-header.
Four victims. Two killers. Two movies. One story.
"I just wish this whole thing were over with."
Facts of the Case
In the late 1950s, four people were killed by two young men named Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. The two films included in this set offer unique versions of that story. The most recent is Capote, in which noted writer Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche, New York) hears about the case, and determines to write an article about it. Upon further investigation, he becomes fascinated with the story, and he decides the article will become a book. "It will become my life's greatest work," he promises, and he sort of means it. Capote interviews the two convicts and quickly becomes bored with the eager Hickock (Mark Pellegrino, Dexter). Instead, Truman decides to focus on the quiet Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr., Masters of Science Fiction). Over time, he forms a sort of bond with Smith, develops his trust, and begins to gather information.
Capote's book was given the title In Cold Blood, which is also the title of the second film in this set. Richard Brooks' 1967 adaptation of Capote's novel offers a more in-depth look at the details of the murder. In this version, we follow Hickock (Scott Wilson, Junebug) and Smith (Robert Blake, Lost Highway) as they plan a robbery. Hickock heard that the Clutter family has a big safe in the house containing thousands of dollars. The plan is to go in, get the money, kill the witnesses, and get out. Things don't exactly go according to plan, but four people end up dead, anyway. The film also details the getaway, arrest, and execution of the two criminals, all the while offering a then controversial study of the psychological factors that drove these two men to commit such awful crimes.
These two films have both won a great deal of acclaim and recognition over the years. Watching them back to back, how well do they compare?
Capote is the rare biopic that doesn't rely on the same old sort of conventional storytelling. Rather than taking the usual documentary-style journey, Capote focuses squarely on six years of author Truman Capote's life, the time period in which he researched and wrote his acclaimed book, In Cold Blood. The film sheds the usual childhood memories, late-life musings, or montages of rising to fame. Instead, it drives straight to the heart of Capote's life, and refuses to let anything distract from the story of what happened during those six years. Hoffman is simply remarkable in the role; he truly disappears into the part. Hoffman is doing so much more than a mere imitation of the man, he becomes Capote as much as any actor ever became anybody. He captures every aspect of the writer, not only the effete socialite who was eager for the attention and praise of his high-society friends, but also the more thoughtful and less public side of Capote.
In a particularly cold sequence, Capote promises Perry that he will find top-drawer lawyers to help with his case, and then does absolutely nothing. He quickly becomes so obsessed with writing his brilliant true crime story that he begins to value plot development more than his relationships. He secretly yearns for the young men to be sent to their death as soon as possible, so he can have an ending to his book. When their day finally comes, he sighs, "Well, there's nothing I could have done to help them." His best friend (and author of To Kill a Mockingbird) Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich), provides a sharp response: "Maybe…but you didn't want to." In the end, Truman finishes his novel, and it is widely applauded as one of the great pieces of literature of the 20th Century. There is a cost, however. "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet loses his own soul?"
The fascinating thing about Capote is that it never apologizes or makes excuses for it's primary character. It is a frank portrait of a man who tip-toed up to the edge of darkness and slowly got sucked in. It never tries to paint Truman as a monster, nor does it try to make him a sympathetic figure. It simply presents him, along with his obsession, to devastating effect. Hoffman makes Truman Capote an unforgettable character, capturing every nuance and detail as the tale progresses. The performance remains one of Hoffman's best. Catherine Keener is excellent as Harper Lee, as is Chris Cooper (Breach) as a law man Alvin Dewey, Bruce Greenwood (Racing Stripes) as Capote's partner Jack Dunphy, and Clifton Collins, Jr. as Perry Smith. Mychael Danna's introspective music is very effective, and the screenwriting adds and removes all the right elements from the well-known story. Capote was an amazing debut for director Bennet Miller, who hopefully has a great future in the movie business. Here is a film that doesn't reduce itself to preaching, sensationalism or cheap sentiment. It's a film that simply tells you what you need to know, and lets your mind do the rest of the work. That's far more difficult than it sounds.
Up until recently, I had been a really big fan of the other film included in this set, In Cold Blood. Unfortunately, the effect of seeing the film directly after Capote was not a good one. I'll get to the bad in a moment, but first let's accentuate the elements that are still good. In Cold Blood spotlights a tremendous lead performance from Robert Blake (who was famously on trial for murder himself many years after the film was released) and a very sharp supporting turn from the ever-reliable Scott Wilson. These two nervous, ambitious, violent dreamers deserve their esteemed place in cinematic history next to Bonnie and Clyde. Just watch Blake as his childish fantasies of treasure hunting turn into wounded paranoia, or the nervous fear hiding behind Wilson's cocksure smile.
In Cold Blood looks very sharp in hi-def, and has been very well preserved. The film benefits from very striking black-and-white cinematography. The movie was made in 1967, well after black-and-white had fallen out of fashion. It was undoubtedly an artistic decision, and it manages to make the more harrowing sequences in the film more coldly effective. Perhaps someone felt like making the film black-and-white would only soften the blow of certain moments, but I think not. Digital Noise Reduction seems to be responsible for the general lack of grain throughout the film, but it's less obtrusive than such things often are. Almost all of the scratches and flecks have been removed. Blacks are very deep, and both facial and background detail are quite solid. It's evident that a lot of loving care has been put into making the film look good. The sound is pretty solid, too, with an energetic score by Quincy Jones sounding particularly robust and vibrant. Audio elements are well-distributed, and dialogue seems pretty clean.
I wish I could offer similar praise to the transfer of Capote, but apparently someone felt like they had to do less work on the film since it's newer and would look better by default. It's a very disappointing and inconsistent transfer, looking far less impressive than many films from the mid-2000s. There's a surprisingly high noise level during a few of the darker scenes, and the image is rather frustratingly hit-and-miss from start to finish. One very sharp shot is followed by another that is much too soft. Capote is a very good-looking film thanks to the cinematography of Adam Kimmel, and it deserved better. The audio is okay, but there are actually a couple of scenes that suffer from minor distortion.
In the supplemental department, these films are replicas of the DVD releases. Capote offers two audio commentaries: one with Bennett Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a second with Miller and cinematographer Adam Kimmel. Both are very dry, low-key tracks. You'll discover some interesting info from both, but you may need a cup of coffee. You're probably better off with the 36-minute "The Making of Capote," a pleasantly substantial making-of documentary. "Answered Prayers" offers a very brief look at the real Capote, and the disc is BD-Live enabled. In Cold Blood sadly offers no special features whatsoever.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Watching In Cold Blood directly after Capote was very bothersome, as I hinted earlier. The latter is such an absorbing, natural, and realistic film. I felt like I had really been spending time with the real Capote, Smith, Hickock, Dewey, and so on. Capote feels like the real deal, whereas In Cold Blood can't escape the feeling of being "the movie version" of the events. Some rather cheap sensationalism mars the film early on. We are treated to several scenes with the ill-fated Clutter family. These scenes serve no purpose other than to demonstrate how remarkably sweet and lovely the Clutters are, so we'll be all the more horrified when they are murdered. One shot of a teenage girl saying her prayers in her bedroom just before the violence begins seems particularly gratuitous.
The film also makes a poor decision by attempting to include a Capote-esque
figure played by Paul Stewart. Of course he's not anything like Capote in terms
of voice and mannerisms (I'm not sure that the moviegoing public could have
handled someone much like Truman back in 1967), but he essentially offers an
oversimplified take on some of the morality lessons to be gained from the sordid
story. These moments of liberal sermonizing are well-intentioned, but absolutely
disastrous from a dramatic point of view. This film should have been allowed to
speak for itself, rather than bringing in Stewart to hammer things home for
viewers. Besides, the character never actually does one thing essential to the
film, but rather stands around in the background until it's time to participate
in some "important dialogue," like this little gem:
In Cold Blood is a compelling if somewhat flawed and dated crime movie, and Capote is one of the best biopics I've ever seen. If you don't own either film, this set earns an easy recommendation. If you all ready have both on DVD, these discs don't offer enough to merit an upgrade.
Both films are not guilty, while this set is guilty of only offering a strong
transfer to one of the films. Court is adjourned.
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