Bloodless

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Nov. 19 1996 3:30 AM

Bloodless

In Cold Blood, the miniseries.

In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences

(By Truman Capote; first published in 1966; 343 pages)

In Cold Blood

Written for the screen and directed by Richard Brooks; released in 1967;

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Had it happened last Friday rather than in the early morning hours of a Nov. 15 nearly two generations ago, had a couple of paroled two-bit crooks broken into a farmhouse in far-western Kansas and--in the course of a botched robbery--killed the entire family, including a 16-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy, it might have made the Wichita papers and perhaps even the Kansas City Star. No Hollywood producer's assistant would have called. This was not, after all, the true story of an obsessed nymphet shooting the wife of her auto-mechanic lover; of a high-school teacher-cum-succubus luring a love-struck teen into murdering her husband; of a jealous former football star allegedly cutting his wife's head nearly clean off, and getting away with it (with sequel possibilities!). The Clutter killings had no discernible sex angle, no infidelity, no incest, no interesting insanity. Two thugs killed four innocent people in cold blood. No story.

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And yet, there it is, a four-hour CBS miniseries starring Anthony Edwards ("Fans knows him best as the lovable Dr. Mark Greene in the series ER") as one killer, Eric Roberts as the other, and Sam Neill as the lawman. "Truman Capote's book is a literary masterpiece," miniseries executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. explained, "and, as such, is certainly worthy of reinterpretation almost 30 years after it was written."

This is true. In Cold Blood is a masterpiece of a kind, not, as has been often alleged, as the first nonfiction crime novel--what was John Hersey's Hiroshima, after all?--but as perhaps the truest work of fiction Capote ever wrote, and certainly the most passionate. It's hard to argue against reinterpreting masterpieces from time to time. We've had a perfectly decent run of Austens lately, and not enough people saw Demi Moore's sex-larded The Scarlet Letter for it to do much damage. Had this miniseries in fact been a reinterpretation, or even an interpretation, it might have been a worthy undertaking. But, somewhere along the way, the well-intentioned miniseries makers embraced the notion that In Cold Blood was A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, just as the book's subtitle asserts. It is nothing of the sort.

Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were killers, but they were not responsible for "one of the most horrific and nonsensical multiple murders of this century," as the publicity material claims. In the end, they weren't even the most horrific murderers on their cellblock. They shared death row at the Kansas State Penitentiary for Men with the likes of Lowell Lee Wolcott, a 300-pound biology honor student who, one Thanksgiving holiday, shot and killed his entire family. They were later joined by George Ronald York and James Douglas Latham, two soldiers who went on a cross-country spree in 1961, killing seven people. That Smith and Hickock became more notorious was something of an accident.

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O n Monday, Nov. 16, 1959, Truman Capote ran across a small story on Page 39 of the New York Times: wealthy farmer, three of family slain. An unsolved multiple murder in small-town America: a writing challenge, thought the author of Breakfast at Tiffany's."Everything would seem freshly minted," he later told his biographer Gerald Clarke. "The people, their accents and attitude, the landscape, its contours, the weather. All this, it seemed to me, could only sharpen my eye and quicken my ear." Capote went to William Shawn, who said something likely not heard in the halls of The New Yorker recently: "I thought that it could make some long and wonderful piece of writing."

And so Capote left his fabulous Manhattan life for Holcomb, Kan., taking with him his childhood friend Harper Lee, who had just finished To Kill a Mockingbird and was up for some intrigue. But the original plan, to spend a couple of months and produce a portrait of a small town's innocence lost, came abruptly to an end that Dec. 30, when Dick Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested.

These were classic losers: Dick, a check-kiting con man whose face had been rearranged in a car accident so that it looked, as Capote described it, "halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off-center"; and Perry, a cherub-faced dreamer whose legs had been mangled and considerably shortened in a motorcycle accident, making him only one inch taller than Capote. According to Clarke's Capote: A Biography, when the itty-bitty author first spied Perry at the arraignment, he exclaimed, "Look, his feet don't touch the floor!" Harper Lee thought, "Oh, oh! This is the beginning of a great love affair."

Capote worked on the book for another six years, visiting Perry and Dick dozens of times and writing letters to each twice a week. He exchanged bursitis remedies with Perry and consoled Dick on his creeping baldness. He was there when they were both hanged April 14, 1965. The book Capote wrote reflects that intimacy; it is more the story of a love affair gone wrong than a murder mystery--or rather, of two love affairs: between Truman and Perry, and Perry and Dick, and--well, maybe three love affairs.

The Perry Smith of the book is an almost heartbreakingly unlovable loser: with a mother, like Capote's, a drunken whore; himself addicted, not unlike Capote, to aspirin; tortured by nuns for wetting the bed; a would-be gold prospector who had seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre eight times; a desperately self-educated man who sprinkled his speech with big words he didn't really know. Capote's Dick Hickock, in contrast, was a low-life hunk of all-man, a fast-talking braggart with a taste for "blonde chicken," whose slight, seemingly sunken-chested figure upon "disrobing revealed ... nothing of the sort, but rather, an athlete constructed on a welterweight scale," his spry body an "inky gallery" of homemade tattoos. He also had an IQ of 130, according to prison tests.

Capote's Perry would follow Dick anywhere, even while fussily correcting his grammar. Dick, in turn, was in the habit of referring to Perry as "honey," as in, "I promise you, honey, we'll blast hair all over them walls."

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