Capote and the death penalty: turning the clock back to 1967

 26th March, 2006

There was nothing I could do to save them. Lee replies coolly, The fact is you didn’t want to.

The story of the murder of the Clutter family caused a bit of a stir in 1959. Enough of one, at any rate, to draw the attention of author and journalist Truman Capote. The sequel is well-known: Mr Capote wrote a book on the case, which I have to say I haven’t read, published only after the two convicted murderers had exhausted their appeals and been executed, on April 14, 1965.

I intend to veer slightly off-topic in this review: the film, as its title suggests, is meant to be, above all, about Mr Capote, with his strengths and weaknesses. He hardly comes out well from this since if the film is to be believed, he put more energy into writing his book than he did into helping its two main characters: he seems to have taken a liking to Perry Smith, but not enough of a liking to try to save him; the second party, on the other hand, Richard Hickock, he appears to take no interest in at all. So In Cold Blood is indeed a biographical film rather than another film about the death penalty, unlike the previous In Cold Blood, shot in the victims’ house itself, in 1967.

Oh yes, if you want to know, it’s rather well acted if you accept the rather unusual context chosen by the director. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, in particular, deserve a mention.

But quite part from a judgment on Mr Capote himself, I was mainly interested by the way in which this film approached the death penalty and that is what I intend to discuss in this post. After hesitating quite a bit, Mr Capote turned up for the hanging of the two men whose story would make him more famous than ever. Brave of him, in a way, since any normal human being would need quite a bit of courage to attend something so abominable. It seems it produced a lasting impression on him, and the film does not hide this.

When I googled Hollywood and Death Penalty, this was what the first site that came up had to say:

Celebrity hairdos and hemlines may change, but there’s one fashion accessory that never goes out of style at the Oscars: Death Row inmates. From Dead Man Walking to The Green Mile to this year’s Academy Award-nominated movie Monster, Hollywood always makes room on the red carpet for anti-death penalty chic.

That terrifying sentence, apparently written by a woman, shows how far opinion has shifted since the 1960s.

It’s well known that Hollywood has expressed opposition to the death penalty on numerous occasions, whether in film scenarios or by intervening directly, as many actors and directors did last December, in favour of Mr Stanley Tookie Williams, whose death sentence Mr Schwartzenegger nevertheless refused to commute. I’m personally opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances, opposed to it being on the statute book at all. So I naturally feel uncomfortable when the media choose to focus, inevitably rather arbitrarily, on one particular death-row inmate: this often stems from political motives linked to the circumstances of the case concerned, rather than from principled opposition regardless of them. This can be as arbitrary as the death penalty itself, and I find it unfair.

In the case of this film, I felt the message, to the extent that there was one at all, was at best subtle, at worst woolly and ambiguous: I haven’t seen such moderation, on the part of Hollywood, about capital punishment in the past fifteen years. Just because Mr Capote himself was ambiguous, or possibly a coward, we end up winding the clock all the way back to 1966 and beyond. I think this is unfortunate, because this is 2006, and In Cold Blood ends up mitigating the stern message of The Green Line or of Dancer In The Dark. The indifference it conveys is odious. If we are to believe the film, Mr Capote doesn’t want to tell his friend that he has already found the title of his book; that he’s very pleased with it; indeed, he doesn’t even consider changing it after Perry tells him the truth about the circumstances in which the murder was committed. All this is true, but should have been presented less indifferently.

So the media’s compassion is scandalously selective. Yet that isn’t the real issue here. There was no reason for the film to lie about Mr Capote’s state of mind when the crime was committed in 1959 and the stages it went through up until April 14, 1965 and, to the best of my knowledge, he did not do so. But the way in which the film itself, as it inevitably must do, approaches the twin issues of crime and punishment is wrong, from today’s perspective. It’s ironic that the first film about this event was produced in 1967, the year in which capital punishment was suspended, pending Furman v. Georgia. And the new methods (I have my doubts about claims that lethal injection is painless) employed since executions resumed in 1977 don’t change anything.

Twelve states and two territories, at the time of writing this, don’t have capital punishment. The subject remains deeply divisive and I think it’s an inappropriate one to write a book about if the object is simply to gain attention. That, at any rate, is something which, sadly, hasn’t changed in forty years.