It is midnight in a police car on a rainy highway somewhere between civilization and the gallows as Perry Smith starts to tell his tale of blood and hair on the walls.
The story of how Smith and Dick Hickock, two sorry ex-cons, butchered a seemingly all-American family in their Holcomb, Kan., farmhouse in 1959, came to be known as "In Cold Blood" when published by Truman Capote in 1965. The "nonfiction novel" was made into a black-and-white feature film two years later by Richard Brooks.
"In Cold Blood" is one of the most profound and awful stories of life and death in the second half of 20th century America. Capote had to essentially create a new form of storytelling -- combining the reporting of journalism with the literary techniques of the novel -- to try to capture the horror of the crime, which he saw as the very center of mainstream American life giving way to a cancer of violence feeding at its underbelly.
Taking on such a story might seem way beyond the reach of a sweeps-month miniseries, but CBS nails enough of "In Cold Blood" in its four-hour version, which starts tomorrow night at 9 on WJZ (Channel 13), that it is worth going out of your way to see or tape.
Most of the talk is going to be about the performance of Anthony Edwards as Hickock -- a con man of some charm and considerable social pathology. Edwards plays the good and decent Dr. Mark Greene every Thursday on "ER," and some viewers may be surprised to see him involved in acts of sexual assault and murder here. Give Edwards two minutes, and he'll make you forget Dr. Greene.
But the very best work is done by director Jonathan ("The Accused") Kaplan and Benedict Fitzgerald, who wrote the screenplay. They use imagery and symbolism -- in some cases, tableaux so carefully constructed that they look like paintings -- to capture the kind of nuance and emotional truth Capote realized in words.
It starts with cross-cutting -- done here with a precision rarely seen in television or feature film. As the killers drive toward Kansas, Kaplan uses it to give us a feel for the outcast lives of Dick and Perry (Eric Roberts) vs. the rock-solid upper-middle-class community to which the Clutters belong.
"In Cold Blood" opens with the family of Herb (Kevin Tighe) Clutter, a prosperous Kansas farmer, at Sunday church services, and, then cuts to a hangman preparing the gallows.
We move to a community playhouse where Herb's radiant 15-year-old daughter, Nancy (Margot Finley), is playing Becky Thatcher in a version of "Tom Sawyer." From there, we cut to Dick acting the role of a lost hunter asking directions at the Clutter farmhouse as he and Perry go through a hardware store TTC buying the rope and weapons they will use to slaughter the family.
The cross-cutting continues from one set of couples to another: Herb and the gentle care he provides for his ailing wife, Bonnie (Gillian Barber). Nancy and her teen love for a boy her father considers out of the question, because he's Catholic and the Clutters are Presbyterian. Dick and Perry with a strong undercurrent of homosexuality.
Woven throughout are marvelous visual moments. There's Perry, a shotgun resting on his shoulder, posed against a stark grain warehouse and a darkening sky -- straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. Then, there's Nancy riding her beloved horse, Babe, into the river on a hot, sun-splashed summer day. One is a dark, chill harbinger of death. The other, an image of such incredible animal vitality and life that it is painful to watch when it appears on-screen as the final credits roll.
Capote's "In Cold Blood" is the story that started all the true-crime, "blood-on-the-wall" made-for-television movies. The actual killing of the Clutter family -- Herb, Bonnie, Nancy and 16-year-old Kenyon (Robbie Bowen) -- takes place during Part 2, which airs Tuesday night and carries an advisory.
The sequence is violent and could unsettle some viewers, but it is not nearly as graphic as it could have been, based on the book and film. While I don't think the story could have accurately been told by CBS with any less violence, there is room for debate.
There will also be disagreement about television showing the hangings of Dick and Perry. Again, I believe the hangman had to be part of the story.
Overall, Kaplan and Fitzgerald seem to have made almost all the right choices. Especially impressive is the way they resisted turning Perry and Dick into a couple of Elmore Leonard or Quentin Tarantino dumb-cluck killers -- the current crime-story rage.
Like Capote, the filmmakers show enough of the pair's incompetence to allow viewers to savor the irony of the title: There is nothing intellectual, cool or cold-blooded about the murder, which is done in anger, confusion and frustration after Perry and Dick discover Herb Clutter does not keep vast amounts of cash in his home. But viewers are never invited to laugh at the pair or to find anything funny in their acts of violence.
Maybe, in that sense, CBS' "In Cold Blood" is actually too old-fashioned to be a hit with viewers or critics -- it's not "postmodern" or "hip" enough about death. If true, all the more reason to watch: to see how we might have changed over the last 30 years in our reaction to such crimes.
Pub Date: 11/23/96