In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood In Cold Blood Onscreen: Capote and the Cinematic Gaze

Rarely is the relationship of the writer to his subject matter so interesting, or so relevant, as in the case of Truman Capote’s friendship with Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. While he was writing In Cold Blood, Capote visited the prisoners regularly and developed a particularly close connection to Perry Smith, which greatly influenced his approach to the subject of his novel, and had a tremendous impact on him personally and professionally. But it is only in recent years that this relationship has been made explicit in the public consciousness, which is partly owing to the release of two films on the subject, Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005) and Douglas McGrath’s Infamous (2006).

Given that In Cold Blood is often described as “cinematic” – the book’s episodic structure and its quick transitions between multiple plotlines make it read more like a movie than a classical novel – it seems almost inevitable that the story would be adapted for the screen. And indeed it was: shortly after the book’s publication in 1966, it was optioned by Irving Lazar, filmed under the direction of Richard Brooks, and finally released in December of 1967. The film faithfully reproduces the novel; however, it was criticized at the time of its release for its languid storytelling and heavy-handed approach to the question of capital punishment, and ultimately, as Gerald Clarke recounts, it has “little of the book’s impact.” Perhaps most significantly, “it is also less cinematic than the book” (386).

Clarke’s last remark is illuminating, for the original film adaptation misses many of the subtler registers of Capote’s storytelling that mark it as truly cinematic. What the book has in common with the medium of film – and what the two more recent movies about Capote succeed in capturing – is the nature of film’s relationship to its subjects, which is based on the concept of the “gaze.”

When film critics speak about the cinematic gaze, they are referring to the omnipresent “look” or point-of-view of the camera, which allows the audience to become voyeurs (or unseen onlookers) to the events onscreen. According to theorists, the gaze enables the audience to have two kinds of experience while watching the film. On the one hand, they make the characters onscreen into objects of sexual or libidinous desire (which is fairly understandable, given that movie stars tend to be sexually appealing). On the other hand, the audience members identify with the characters onscreen, narcissistically projecting their own self-image onto that of another, often idealized person (i.e. a movie star). The audience may alternate between these two sensations while watching a film, or sometimes, more subtly, they may experience these feelings of identification and desire simultaneously.

The gaze, so revealing of cinema as a medium, is also a very useful concept for describing Truman Capote’s approach to the characters of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock while writing the book. In many ways Capote is the “camera” in the world of the book: he records the events of the murder case from a seemingly omniscient vantage point, without ever revealing his own involvement. But, as the two films about him make explicit, Capote also becomes drawn into his own apparatus, as a kind of spectator, fascinated by the spectacle before him that was only partly his own creation. Infamous depicts the relationship between Capote and Perry as driven by romantic and sexual desire, which they consummate physically in the course of the film. Capote, on the other hand, does not portray the men as physically intimate, but suggests that the relationship is based on strong feelings of identification, with each man recognizing an image of himself in the other man. As Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote says late in the film, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day, he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.” According to Harper Lee, speaking about Capote’s real-life relationship with Perry Smith, “Each looked at the other and saw – or thought he saw – the man he might have been."

These film renditions shed considerable light on the nature of Capote’s storytelling in the context of the book. In a sense, all narration like Capote’s has implications of voyeurism, and of making the book’s subjects into objects of one’s desire. But alongside this, the author himself becomes implicated as a subject in the book, insofar as his depictions of his subjects are also, at the same time, reflections of himself. This criticism of Capote’s style has certainly been current since the book's publication, but the films go one step further by exploring its explicit connection to Capote’s “offscreen” romance (physical or not) with Perry Smith.