Posted in Books

In Cold Blood

in cold bloodNo book ever frightened me as much as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Merely reading the New York Times review caused me a sleepless night. I was 15 when I first read it, and the story of a family murdered in their Kansas home was an inexorable horror show. But the quality of Capote’s writing was undeniable. Many readings since have only caused my admiration to grow for his stark prose and the detail of his observations.

At the time of publication, Capote, who seemingly couldn’t live without stirring up controversy, boasted that “In Cold Blood” represented his invention of a new format: the “nonfiction novel.” He detailed how he had adapted the techniques of fiction to the reporting of true events, though in truth this format was not new. The New Yorker had prided itself on this style of reportage for years, and in fact John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and Lillian Ross’s “Picture,” both of which had originally appeared in that publication, were frequently cited by reviewers who maintained that others had gotten there long before Capote.

It turns out that “novel” may have trumped “nonfiction” in the case of “In Cold Blood” more than first suspected. To a certain extent this is not exactly news. Various sources have revealed over the years that Capote molded the story to an unusual degree to suit his ends, going so far as to invent certain incidents such as the book’s final scene, an accidental meeting at the Clutter grave site of Nancy Clutter’s best friend and Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective whom Capote credits with solving the case. More recently Charles J. Shields’ biography of Harper Lee, “Mockingbird,” provided tantalizing details of what Lee learned about Holcomb, Kansas as well as the Clutters while assisting Capote in his research, specifically the extent to which Mrs. Clutter’s illness cast a shadow over her daughter’s life. As per Lee’s notes, Capote feared that such information would mar the image of the all-American family he intended to portray and refused to include it in his book.

This month the heirs of Harold Nye, a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who worked the Clutter case, won the right to publish his notebooks and other material relating to the murders and their investigation. For a number of years KBI agents and their survivors have disputed Capote’s depiction of how law enforcement identified and captured the murderers, so it should be fascinating to see how Nye’s contemporaneous notes gibe with “In Cold Blood.” Capote famously declined to take notes during his interviews with the various sources for his book, relying instead on memory to reconstruct what had been related to him. Logic tells you this technique is not the best to ensure accuracy, no matter how prodigious the powers of recall, so a newly revealed account should be an interesting contrast to “In Cold Blood.”

Should we fault Capote for the manner of his presentation? He never said his work was journalism, which as we know isn’t always 100% on the money as every newspaper’s “Corrections” section can attest (too bad certain cable stations fail to air their apologies in similar fashion). Aren’t works of nonfiction, not to mention documentary film, inevitably the result of choices made by the author or director to include or exclude certain material, to interpret and to present a point of view? Capote may have erred on various facts or misrepresented whether certain events took place, such as that grave site meeting, but I’d be surprised to learn that he distorted either participant’s emotions or views. And as for attributing the breakthroughs in the case to one man, Capote evidently felt the book needed a hero: Alvin Dewey, a solid family man who knew the Clutters. By doing so Capote enables us to see events unfold through the eyes of an individual whom we come to know, so that the climactic passage of the book, Perry Smith’s confession to Dewey, carries the horror that it should.

Capote’s initial impulse in writing about these events was to show the impact of a murder upon a small town. In this he succeeds brilliantly, as we hear the stunned remarks of Holcomb residents and view the image of fearful townsfolk sitting up all night with every light burning in their homes. What people say and do in the aftermath of murder can be astonishing, as witness the wedding of one of the older Clutter daughters two days after the funeral of her parents and younger siblings. In a way it makes sense—her entire extended family was in Holcomb and the church had already been booked for the next month—but reading Capote’s account, it seems incredibly strange. On the other hand, I saw similar reactions many years later. When I was still living the corporate life, my boss of ten years was murdered; to date the case remains unsolved. How I saw people behave in the aftermath was no less odd, not to mention at times insulting and occasionally just plain weird. Let me just say that Capote’s observations in this regard ring very true.

“In Cold Blood” is more than a milestone in the true crime genre. It’s included in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books written in English during the 20th century, residing alongside some fast company indeed. It remains a classic.

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Posted in Television

Detecting

The-Fall

Query: Why is it U.K. television does police procedurals so much better than we do in the U.S.?

I just saw Season 1 of “The Fall” and “Broadchurch,” respectively, and I’m still marveling at how well these shows told their stories. I can only think of two series set on our side of the Atlantic that match their grit and intensity: the classic 1990’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and more recently “The Wire,” though the latter is really a portrait of Baltimore with each season of the show focusing on a different facet of the city (in order: the police, the waterfront, the black community, the schools and finally the politicians).

“The Fall,” set in Belfast and starring Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, is the old story of the hunter and the hunted, but with a twist—you’re not always clear as to which is which. Gibson’s on the trail of a serial killer who stalks women, breaks into their homes and later returns to murder them, ultimately washing, grooming and posing their bodies for discovery. I won’t lie—this show is incredibly intense and the assault and murder scenes are very difficult to watch. Nevertheless the story is absorbing because the murderer is such a far cry from whom you’d expect: Paul Spector (the incredibly handsome Jamie Dornan), a grief counselor who’s married with two children. His wife is a neo-natal nurse, and because they work opposite shifts she hasn’t a clue as to how her husband spends his time while she’s at the hospital.

DS Gibson is one ambitious cop. She never hesitates and she never quits. Originally she’s imported from the Metropolitan Police Force to help solve the murder of the former daughter-in-law of a powerful politician. Through just a modicum of finagling Gibson gets herself appointed SIO (senior investigating officer) on another case involving the murder of a young female attorney. To the distress of her superior officer, she sees the connection to the earlier murder and drops the serial killer card on the table for all to see.

Gibson is something of an enigma. Warm she’s not, yet she handles peers and subordinates well—the scene in which she talks a fellow detective down from hysteria after he witnesses a suicide is extraordinary, as is the manner in which she assuages the guilt of an officer who along with her partner might have prevented the attorney’s murder. For the most part, though, she’s extremely guarded; the only character with whom she appears to be at ease is the medical examiner, Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi). Although we see her pick up a cop in record time (her technique resembles how you and I would choose a steak from the meat case of our local supermarket), it doesn’t appear that she enjoys the sex beyond the merely physical. A very cool customer indeed.

It’s evident that Gibson is leading her quarry on. But she and Paul Spector seem to be distorted mirror images of each other, since he’s obviously doing the same with her. I’m looking forward to the second season of this show, which has already aired in the U.K., for a resolution of this very high-wire tension. The suspense, as they say, is killing me.

Broadchurch

 

“Broadchurch,” though focused on a murder investigation, centrally poses the following question: “How well do you really know your neighbors?” For the residents of a seaside town in Dorset, the answer is not a welcome one.

DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) returns to work after a three-week vacation only to learn that the job she wanted has been filled by the imported DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant), a cop with a huge blot on his record due to a botched murder investigation. To say Ellie’s not happy is an understatement, but she and her new boss are immediately confronted with the murder of an 11 year-old boy who happens to be her son’s best friend. And Broadchurch, being the small town that it is, is a hotbed of everyone being in each other’s business. Stoking the flames of distrust even higher are the ladies and gentlemen of the press, one of whom is Ellie’s nephew. No one is above suspicion, whether obvious or not: the local vicar, a telephone repairman who receives psychic messages from the dead, the murdered boy’s father, Ellie’s son. DS Miller is forced to learn more about her neighbors than she ever wanted, and in the middle of it all, we see a bereaved family attempt to come to terms with their grief.

The pace of Season 1 of “Broadchurch” keeps the story at just the right simmer over its eight-episode length. I was totally absorbed by the relationships of the town’s residents and especially by the interaction of Hardy and Miller. What would a detective be unless he had a Past (capital “P”), and Hardy certainly does, as we come to learn. He’s rude, he’s brusque, but he’s so much fun to watch. He’s got a laser-like focus when he questions witnesses and suspects, something we only see develop in Miller (as Hardy insists on calling her) over time. This in turn makes you realize that their superior was right all along in filling the lead slot with a detective who was up to the job from the start.

If there’s a fault in “Broadchurch” it’s only in an exceptionally heavy anvil dropped in the seventh episode, though even this serves the purpose of coalescing your thoughts as to whodunit. The ultimate resolution is crushing, if not entirely unexpected, but there’s resilience: “Broadchurch” will be back for a second season, though BBC America won’t be airing it until March (in the meantime I’ll be checking YouTube religiously for uploads). The show’s American version, “Gracepoint,” also starring David Tennant, didn’t fare as well, having been cancelled after ten episodes. I saw the first (long before I watched “Broadchurch”) and didn’t care for it. The California coastal town seemed unreal and the pace threatened to be excruciating. Having stuck with the interminable “The Killing” for its first season, I wasn’t eager to go through that experience again.

Why anyone felt the need to transplant “Broadchurch” is beyond me. If ever there’s a poster child for “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” it’s this show. I hope it continues for quite some time.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Movies That Stick With You

"We rob banks"
“We rob banks”

If you’re on Facebook, you’re no doubt familiar with (and probably incredibly annoyed by) those quizzes that always seem to be in circulation. However, there’s one that recently crossed my path again after four years, and I’ve been intrigued by how my views have changed or in some instances remained the same. I’m referring to the quiz that begins with the instruction: “List the first fifteen films you’ve seen that will always stick with you. Fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.”

So free-associating I went. It wasn’t until I completed my list and went to the “Notes” section of my Facebook page that I realized I had taken the quiz before. Here are the results:

2014                                                                    2010
Bonnie and Clyde                                   Bonnie and Clyde
Up in the Air                                            Smiles of a Summer Night
Some Like It Hot                                     L.A. Confidential
Days of Wine and Roses                       The Talented Mr. Ripley
Vertigo                                                       Music Box
The Godfather                                         The Seventh Seal
The Last Picture Show                          The Magnificent Ambersons
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?       Sherlock, Jr.
Yankee Doodle Dandy                           Meet Me in St. Louis
L.A. Confidential                                     The Letter
Now, Voyager                                            Laura
A Letter to Three Wives                         A Letter to Three Wives
Elmer Gantry                                             They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Smiles of a Summer Night                    Public Enemy
Persona                                                        Howard’s End

A couple of observations: While some of the films have changed, two of the key players did not: Bette Davis (“The Letter” vs. “Now, Voyager”) and James Cagney (“Public Enemy” vs. “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), which didn’t surprise me at all—they’re among my favorite actors. Several of the movies fell off the list during the intervening years due to sheer fatigue on my part—much as I love “Laura” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” I’ve recently had to give these two a rest as I did with “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (one can only take so much Jude Law at his most gorgeous). I can’t say I included any stinkers, though I was surprised to find I had picked “Meet Me in St. Louis” in 2010. And the only movie I regret omitting from either list is “The Best Years of Our Lives,” one of the most satisfying films I’ve ever seen.

That “Bonnie and Clyde” tops both lists is proof that what you experience in adolescence stays with you forever. I saw this during its first release when I was a junior in high school; no other movie I’ve seen since looks quite like it. Today’s first-time viewers might yawn, but I can’t emphasize enough how shocking the violence and the blood were in 1967, yet how refreshingly hip it all seemed before the shooting started. The ending is both famous and infamous, but the earlier scene in the field, as Buck lies dying of a head wound and the gang is surrounded by law enforcement, is an incredible ballet of death. While all the actors are excellent, Gene Hackman as Buck is the true standout.

“Up in the Air” is my favorite recent film. It definitely rates its own blog post, so stay tuned. Three of the repeaters, namely “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Smiles of a Summer Night,” remain among my most watchable films. The first of these has amazing grit and spectacular performances from Jane Fonda and Gig Young. “L.A. Confidential” is one of the most perfectly cast movies I’ve ever seen. I’m aware that a number of viewers complain that the plot is too complicated, but when I saw it during its first run, I could really feel the story unfold, like a flower opening. If you want to see what a terrific job screenwriter Brian Helgeland did, try the James Ellroy novel on which the film is based—it’s a great read but you’ll spend a lot of time backtracking just to keep things straight. In an entirely different mode, “Smiles of a Summer Night” is unquestionably Ingmar Bergman’s loveliest film. It may be hard to believe coming from the director that gave us “Winter Light” and “Through a Glass Darkly,” but each time I watch it I feel much better about the world in general.

I hadn’t seen “Days of Wine and Roses” in quite a while until Turner Classic Movies ran it one recent Sunday morning, which was odd scheduling indeed. While the film’s set pieces are well-known—Joe’s tearing up his father-in-law’s greenhouse in search of that hidden bottle, Kirsten’s enticing Joe into drinking with her in that cheap motel room—the freshness of the couple’s early relationship makes their descent into alcoholism that much more painful. Interestingly, in the original version of this story, which aired on television’s “Playhouse 90,” Joe and Kirsten are both heavy drinkers when we first see them; there’s no suggestion that he coerced her to drink as there is in the film. Piper Laurie is as wonderful a Kirsten in the televised version as Lee Remick is in the movie version, though Cliff Robertson can’t hold a candle to Jack Lemmon’s later performance as Joe Clay (If you’d like to compare teleplay to film, the former is included in “The Golden Age of Television” anthology)

Addie Ross' parting shot to three wives
Addie Ross’ parting shot to three wives

I was tickled to see that even with a four-year lapse in time, I had “A Letter to Three Wives” in the same position on both lists. This is one of my all-time favorite movies and more universal, perhaps, than Joseph Mankiewicz’s next film, “All About Eve.” You couldn’t ask for a better cast: Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas are the stand-outs among the husbands and wives, Celeste Holm supplies Addie Ross’ arch narration, and Connie Gilchrist as Ms. Darnell’s mother and especially Thelma Ritter as Sadie the maid (“Soup’s on!”) are wonders to behold. It’s not just an incredibly funny movie—there’s a tragic thread in the relationship of Lora Mae and Porter Hollingsway, two people who are afraid to say “I love you” to each other. I should warn you, however, that there’s one minor fault in the film: the ending is a bit rushed, to the extent that you may not be sure that Porter is telling the truth (nearly everyone I’ve known who’s seen it says the same thing). Reverse and replay it—you’ll see that he is.

And what 15 films always stick with you?