Monday, May 21, 2012

 

Centennial Tributes: Richard Brooks Part III


By Edward Copeland
It isn't often that a masterpiece of literature begets a masterpiece of cinema yet both retain distinct identities all their own, but that's the case with In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" and Richard Brooks' stunning film adaptation of his book. Capote often gets credit for inventing the genre of adapting the techniques of a novelist to that of straight reporting, but earlier attempts existed — Capote's stood out because In Cold Blood 's excellence made everyone forget any other examples (at least until more than a decade later when Norman Mailer added his own brilliant take on the genre with The Executioner's Song). Brooks, with his job as a crime reporter in his past, on the surface appears to follow Capote's approach, but the director, forever the activist, skips the objectivity that Capote tried to evoke in his book. Brooks didn't want to minimize the horror of the crime that occurred at the Clutter farm in Holcomb, Kans., but he also wanted to humanize the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. In a way, Brooks' film inspired the path for the two films made decades later telling the story of Capote's writing of the book and his getting to know the killers first-hand as they waited on Death Row. Even today, Brooks' 1967 film remains more powerful and better made than the two more recent tales. Undoubtedly, In Cold Blood remains Brooks' greatest film. If you got here before reading either Part I or Part II of this tribute, click on the respective links.

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call "out there." Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.


Capote begins his book with that paragraph in the first chapter titled The Last to See Them Alive. Brooks begins the film of In Cold Blood introducing us to The Last to See Them Alive in the forms of Robert Blake as newly paroled inmate Perry Smith and Scott Wilson as an acquaintance he met in prison who had been freed earlier, Dick Hickok. Brooks gives Blake — and the movie — a memorable entrance, especially thanks to his decision to go against the grain of the time and film in black-and-white Panavision. We see a bus driving down a two-lane highway, passing signs showing the distance to different Kansas towns, including the horrific Olathe. On the bus, a young female stumbles down the aisle to get a closer look at the pair of pointed-toe cowboy boots with buckles on its heels before creeping back. The shadowy man who wears the boots also has a guitar strung around his neck. A flame suddenly illuminates Robert Blake's face as he lights a cigarette and Quincy Jones' ominous yet jazzy score kicks in to start the credits. The sequence not only sets the tone for the film that follows, it also introduces us to the movie's most important participant — cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (though he didn't need to use the L. yet since his son, Conrad W. Hall, wasn't old enough to follow his dad into the business).

The movie spends its opening minutes introducing us to the soft-spoken Perry and getting him hooked up with Dick. Whereas Blake's Perry comes off as a puppy repeatedly kicked by his owner, Scott Wilson portrays Hickok as a cocky, livewire and a chatterbox — and Brooks gives him great lines, especially in the scenes where he and Blake drive around. "Ever seen a millionaire fry in the electric chair? Hell, no. There's two kinds of laws, one for the rich and one for the poor," Dick imparts as wisdom to Perry. When the two buy supplies for the planned robbery of the Clutter farm, Dick shoplifts some razorblades for no good reason, leading Perry to chastise him for taking such a risk for something so small. "That was stupid — stealin' a lousy pack of razor blades! To prove what?" Perry asks. Smiling, Dick replies, "It's the national pastime, baby, stealin' and cheatin'. If they ever count every cheatin' wife and tax chiseler, the whole country would be behind prison walls." Though in the two recent biographical films about Truman Capote's research into the case, it's strongly implied that Capote at least developed a crush on Smith and that Perry may have been gay. In Cold Blood never explicltly claims that Perry Smith was gay, but throughout the film Dick taunts him by calling him "honey," "baby" or something along those lines. Hickock on the other hand chases every skirt he gets near and during the robbery/murder, Perry intervenes to stop Dick from raping the Clutters' 16-year-old daughter Nancy (Brenda Currin). Wilson made his first two feature films in 1967 and he landed roles in two of the biggest — this one and the eventual Oscar winner for best picture, Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night. The jaws of younger readers should hit the floor when they see Wilson's great work here and it slowly dawns on them that playing Dick Hickok is a younger incarnation of Herschel on AMC's The Walking Dead. When Perry and Dick do get together, they meet at Dick's father's house where Dick tries to aid his old man, who's slowly losing his battle with terminal cancer. (Veteran character actor Jeff Corey, who co-starred in the Brooks-scripted 1947 classic Brute Force, plays the elder Hickock.) Contrasting Capote's take with Brooks' version fascinates in the ways the works reflect each other yet, like a mirror, many things appear on the opposite side. The book introduces its readers to the Clutter family first before Perry and Dick enter the story (by name anyway). Brooks' screenplay reverses the order, beginning with the killers then letting us meet the Kansas family. However, both aim to draw parallels between the victims and their eventual murderers. "That morning an apple and a glass of milk were enough for him; because he touched neither coffee or tea, he was accustomed to begin the day on a cold stomach. The truth was he opposed all stimulants, however gentle. He did not smoke, and of course he did not drink; indeed, he had never tasted spirits, and was inclined to avoid people who had — a circumstance that did not shrink his social circle as much as might be supposed, for the center of that circle was supplied by the members of Garden City's First Methodist Church, a congregation totaling seventeen hundred, most of whom were as abstemious as Mr. Clutter could desire," Capote described the Clutter patriarch. A few pages later in the first chapter, Perry Smith makes his entrance into Capote's book. "Like Mr. Clutter, the young man breakfasting in a cafe called the Little Jewel never drank coffee. He preferred root beer. Three aspirin, cold root beer, and a chain of Pall Mall cigarettes — that was his notion of a proper "chow-down." Sipping and smoking, he studied a map spread on the counter before him — a Phillips 66 map of Mexico — but it was difficult to concentrate, for he was expecting a friend, and the friend was late. He looked out a window at the silent small-town street, a street he had never seen until yesterday. Still no sign of Dick," Capote wrote. Brooks uses a visual link to draw victim and killer together, showing Herbert Clutter (John McLiam) performing his morning shave. As Clutter leans into the sink to rinse the remaining shaving cream from his face, the face that rises up and looks in the mirror sees Perry Smith, excising his excess whiskers as well.

The biggest difference between the book and the movie came with Brooks' introduction of a Truman Capote surrogate, a magazine reporter named Jensen, who travels to Holcomb to cover the case. Jensen isn't played in a way similar to the extremely distinctive Capote — such as the way that won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar for Capote, that Toby Jones played even better in Infamous or that Tru himself played best of all as Lionel Twain in Neil Simon's 1976 mystery spoof Murder By Death. Brooks wrote the Jensen character straight (no pun intended) and conventionally, even giving him a narrator's function at times. He doesn't precisely follow how Capote researched the story though because Capote didn't arrive in Kansas until after Smith and Hickok had been apprehended. In the movie, Jensen arrives almost from the beginning of the investigation. For the role of Jensen, Brooks cast another veteran character actor — Paul Stewart, whose first credited screen role was the butler Raymond in Citizen Kane. His 42-year film and television career ended in 1983 with an episode of Remington Steele and he died three years later, a month shy of his 88th birthday. After starting with Kane, a few of Stewart's eclectic highlights included Champion, Brooks' Deadline-U.S.A., The Bad and the Beautiful, Kiss Me Deadly, Hell on Frisco Bay, King Creole, Opening Night, Revenge of the Pink Panther, S.O.B. and appearances on nearly every episodic police or detective show between the 1950s and the 1970s, including The Mod Squad. The Jensen character arrives around the same time that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation joins the case led by John Forsythe as Alvin Dewey, what may be Forsythe's best performance. Brooks gives him a lot of speeches — and some come off as less pristine than others, but Forsythe succeeds at selling most of them. Forsythe gets so identified with Dynasty or as a voice on Charlie's Angels that I think people forget that he really act when the material was there for him as it was here or in the short-lived and underrated Norman Lear sitcom The Powers That Be and having fun with Hitchcock in The Trouble With Harry (though no one could help Topaz much). He also was a replacement performer of one of the major roles in Arthur Miller's All My Sons on Broadway. Granted, didn't see him, but he had to show some chops to land that one. Of his filmed work though, I think In Cold Blood stands as the best. Sure, this speech reads as overwrought, but he pulled it off as he delivered it to Jensen. "Someday, someone will have to explain the motive of a newspaper to me. First, you scream, 'Find the bastards.' Till we do find 'em, you want to get us fired. When we find 'em, you accuse us of brutality. Before we go into court, you give them a trial in the newspaper, When we finally get a conviction, you want to save 'em by proving they were really crazy in the first place. All of which adds up to one thing — you've got the killers," Dewey tells Jensen as he's taking down to the basement of the Clutter house. Dewey also serves as Mr. Exposition, explaining why these two numbskulls just out of prison would decide to go to this one particular farmhouse and rob this family, making sure to "leave no witnesses," even though Dick and Perry only gain $40 from the crime. A fellow investigator asks Dewey if Clutter might have been rich and Alvin sort of laughs knowingly. "Ahh — the old Kansas myth. Every farmer with a big spread is supposed to have a secret black box with lots of money in it." It isn't until the ending that you realize the Brooks gave Dewey some of that dialogue because he's supposed to symbolize the parts of the system that disgust him. Brooks ardently opposed capital punishment and he made no secret that he wanted the ending to make clear that it was murder. At Smith's hanging, another reporter asks Dewey about how much the executioner makes. "Three hundred dollars a man," Dewey answers. "Who does he work for? Does he have a name?" the reporter follows up and then poor John Forsythe has to deliver the clunkiest line of dialogue in the entire film. "Yes. We the people." Earlier, it had been the topic of discussion between Jensen and an imprisoned Hickock.
DICK: Perry's the only one talking against capital punishment.
JENSEN: Don't tell me you're for it.
DICK: Hell, hangin' only getting revenge. What's wrong with revenge? I've been revenging myself all my life.


Part of the film's brilliance stems from the way Brooks structures the scenes detailing the crime itself. Toward the beginning of the movie, he presents what probably remains the greatest sequence of his directing career without actually showing the murder. Then, as the film winds down, he shows us what we didn't see and it's horrifying. Through a window of the farmhouse, we can see Nancy kneeling beside her bed saying her prayers. At that moment, it isn't made clear who could be seeing that — are Dick and Perry outside her window or are we simply the voyeurs right then? A split second later we spot Dick and Perry still sitting in the car beneath the cover of night. I guess it was us. The discordant sound of a doorbell suddenly fills the soundtrack and the viewer realizes he or she has moved inside the Clutter house — and sunlight shines through the windows. The camera tracks slowly around the furniture of the living room as it makes its way toward the front door. A woman and some other people open the door calling out for the Clutters. We faintly hear church bells tolling and the visitors wear their Sunday best. The woman continues to call out the Clutters by their first names as she ascends the stairs to the second floor. The film cuts quickly to the house's exterior just as we hear the woman let out a horrified scream. Coming on the heels of The Professionals, it's as if somehow Brooks transformed himself from a competent director and damn good writer into a master of both. I don't know if the fact he had Conrad Hall working as his d.p. on both films made any sort of difference or if that proved to be just fortuitous, but that one-two punch sealed Brooks' artistic reputation forever beyond what respect he'd earned before. I've never been fortunate enough to see In Cold Blood on the big screen and allow Hall's haunting and beautiful mix of light and shadow to bathe me in its glow, but I did get the next best thing when in 1993 at the Inwood Theater in Dallas I saw Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels' documentary Visions of Light, a film devoted to the art of cinematography and highlighting some of its greatest practitioners and their best moments. One of the highlighted scenes comes from In Cold Blood when Robert Blake as Perry gives an emotional monologue about his father in his prison cell while he looks out the window at the rain coming down. The reflection of the raindrops cast shadows on Blake's face that make it appear as if he's crying. The moment stuns in its beauty — even when you learn that as so many say, accidents ends up producing some of the best parts of film. Hall admitted it hadn't been planned but the humidity in the prison set had pumped up the window's perspiration so much (as well as everyone else's) that's how the magic happened. Thankfully, YouTube had that clip.


It must be said how good a performance Blake gives while at the same time acknowledging that it can't be viewed the way many of us assessed it originally. When a Naked Gun movie pops up and you see O.J. Simpson play an idiot and constantly take a beating, somehow that's OK. When you watch In Cold Blood again and see Blake give such a convincing and chilling performance as a mass murderer (especially when Forsythe's Alvin Dewey engages him in conversation during the ride to jail and Perry tells him, "I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought it right till the moment I cut his throat."), you can't help but recall that a few decades later, the actor stood trial and received an acquittal for killing his wife. It doesn't stand out as groundbreaking now, when last night's Mad Men said shit twice, but in 1967, In Cold Blood became the first major release to utter the word bullshit. For the second year in a row, Brooks received Oscar nominations for directing and adapted screenplay and Hall got one for cinematography. Quincy Jones also picked up a nomination for original score, though Jones didn't receive one for his music for In the Heat of the Night. I don't understand how the nimrods at the Academy left it out of the top five for best picture. They nominated two films that deserved to be there: Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. The film that won, a fine film but certainly expendable: In the Heat of the Night. A perceived prestige project of social significance that's overrated as hell: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The fifth nominee that would make no sense in any year: Doctor Dofuckinglittle. Basically, three out of the five films could have been tossed to make room for In Cold Blood. A few other more deserving 1967 titles: Cool Hand Luke, The Dirty Dozen, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Accident, Wait Until Dark, Point Blank, The Jungle Book. The National Board of Review did honor Brooks' direction. Brooks also received his sixth Directors Guild nomination and his sixth Writers Guild nomination. With the exception of the WGA, Brooks would never be named for any of the top awards again. In Cold Blood marked his best, but from there things went downhill fast.

THE HAPPY ENDING (1969)

One of the most difficult films to find (I've never seen it) for that recent a film with a best actress nomination. Brooks wrote his first original screenplay since Deadline-U.S.A. as a vehicle for wife Jean Simmons. From descriptions I've read, Simmons plays Mary Wilson, who was raised on romantic notions of marriage from the movies, finds herself in a funk on her anniversary and flies to the Bahamas on a whim, running into a free spirit (Shirley Jones) while there.

$ (1971)

I missed this one as well. From TCM's web site; "In Hamburg, Germany, American Joe Collins (Warren Beatty) is considered by bank manager Kessel (Gert Fröbe) to be the most honest, hard-working bank security expert in the world. Unknown to Kessel, Joe has been devising a plan with his girlfriend, American expatriate prostitute Dawn Divine (Goldie Hawn), to take the contents from bank safe-deposit boxes owned by several criminals and place them into one owned by Dawn. Roger Ebert gave it three stars in his original review.

BITE THE BULLET (1975)

I wanted to see this one, but just ran out of time. Here's what qualifies as TCM's full synopsis: A former roughrider (Gene Hackman) matches wits with a lovely but shady lady-in-distress (Candice Bergen), as a drifting ex-cowboy (James Coburn) and a young, reckless cowboy (Jan-Michael Vincent) join in on a 700 mile journey. Ebert gave it three and a half stars in his original review.

LOOKING FOR NR. GOODBAR (1977)

I've actually seen this one. In fact, as we near the end of Brooks' career, I've watched two of the last three movies. As an unrelated sidenote, this year also marked the end of Brooks' 17-year marriage to Jean Simmons. If by chance you aren't familiar with this movie, think of it as sort of the Shame of the 1970s — and I don't mean the Ingmar Bergman movie. Diane Keaton stars as a teacher of deaf students whose affair with her college professor ends badly. She reacts as anyone would to a breakup — she starts cruising New York bars and picking up strangers for one-night stands while also developing a taste for drugs. The film definitely didn't belong in the genre of liberated women films of the 1970s as Keaton's character will pay. I saw this when I was a young man and I found it distasteful then, though it did have more sensible plotting than last year's Shame. Brooks directed his last performer to an Oscar nomination with Tuesday Weld getting a supporting actress nod. Keaton won the best actress Oscar for 1977 — but for Annie Hall. Brooks adapted a novel by Judith Rossen that was loosely based on a real incident, but most reviews by people who had read the novel seemed to indicate that Brooks changed key elements. Then, that matches the speech Brooks gave the movie's cast and crew on the first day of shooting, according to Douglass K. Daniel's Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks. "I'm sure that all of you have your own ideas about what kind of contributions you can make to this film, what you can do to improve it or make it better. Keep it to yourself. It's my fucking movie and I'm going to make it my way!" Daniel wrote. Goodbar also featured Richard Gere in one of his earliest roles. This clip plays off the tension of whether fun and games are at hands or something more dangerous.


WRONG IS RIGHT (1982)

Brooks referred to this film as "the biggest disaster" of his career. Later, he amended it slightly, blaming TV for purposely not coverage the film because the movie criticized "checkbook journalism." Having watched Wrong Is Right for the first time recently, this compels me to ask, "It did?" Sean Connery stars as a globetrotting reporting for what appears to be a CNN-like news station. The opening sequence contains some amusing moments, (including a young Jennifer Jason Leigh, nearly 30 years after her dad Vic Morrow played the worst punk in Brooks; Blackboard Jungle) but what could be cutting-edge satire of a media form just being born transforms into a scattershot satire involving fictional oil-rich African countries, the CIA, a presidential race and arms dealers trading suitcase nukes, Based on a novel, I hope that it had a plot, but Wrong Is Right just ends up being one of those strange satires like The Men Who Stared at Goats where once it ends you still don't know what the hell happened. This clip shows the opening sequence. Nothing after it deserves your attention.


FEVER PITCH (1985)

I've got good news and bad news when it comes to Richard Brooks' final film. The good news: it brought him awards consideration again. The bad news: It was at the Razzies where it earned nominations for worst picture, worst director, worst screenplay and worst musical score. I'm not sure whether or not it relieved him that the film lost in all four categories, with Rambo: First Blood Part II taking worst picture, director and screenplay and Rocky IV winning worst score dishonors. I have not seen Fever Pitch which TCM hasn't even given a synopsis, but I know enough to tell you that Ryan O'Neal plays an investigator reporter doing a story on compulsive gambling who discovers he suffers from the problem. The subject of the movie came up on my Facebook page and Richard Brody, critic at The New Yorker, commented, "I saw Fever Pitch when it came out and loved every overheated second. Haven't seen it since then. Seeing The Connection has brought it back: no detached observer but a participant almost instantly in over his head." At the time of its release, it became one of the rare films that Ebert gave zero stars.

Following Fever Pitch, Brooks toyed with the idea of writing a screenplay about the blacklist, basing it around an incident in 1950 when fights broke out at the Directors Guild over the loyalty oath, but he didn't get around to it. The man who could be quite a bully on the set, had quite a bit of bitterness toward the industry by now as he showed in the second half of that 1985 interview.


Richard Brooks died of congestive heart failure on March 11, 1992, at 79. He did have close friends, but most of them had died themselves by then. The stepdaughter he basically raised as his own when he married Jean Simmons, Tracy Granger, made certain, his tombstone bore the only appropriate epitaph for the man.

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Comments:
Yes, 'In Cold Blood' remains one of the best true crime films ever. I first saw this late one Saturday night on TV while in high school. Chilling stuff that has never left me (especially that final image). Fine write-up, Ed.
 
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