Friday, December 14, 2012

Bringing a True Crime Classic to the Screen

Last spring, I finally saw the movie "Capote" and was inspired to re–read "In Cold Blood" during the summer.

I knew this year was the 45th anniversary of the premiere of the movie that was based on that book — that anniversary is today, by the way — so I knew that familiarizing myself with the book's content again would be useful, but it never occurred to me that there might be another reason for reading it again (well, aside from the fact that it's just a darn good book).

It isn't as if there was some new effort afoot to prove the killers' innocence. The two men who were convicted of the Kansas killings were executed nearly 50 years ago. As far as I know, there has never been any reason to doubt that they were guilty. No question about that.

Logically, that should have been the end of it.

I suppose, though, that my years of work in the news business should have told me that — potentially — nothing is ever really done in this world. (Several years ago, for example, authorities exhumed President Zachary Taylor to try to determine whether his death was due to natural causes or foul play. Taylor died more than 150 years ago.)

And, sure enough, the "In Cold Blood" case is back in the news — just in time for the anniversary of the movie's debut.

It was revealed a couple of weeks ago that authorities wanted to exhume the killers' remains to retrieve DNA samples.

No one is trying to disprove the conclusion of the Kansas jury that convicted them and sentenced them to death for killing the Clutter family in November 1959. Rather, the emphasis is on a similar case in Florida about a month later.

Truman Capote's book mentions the killers' travels after the Kansas murders, including a time when they were in Florida. The two were considered suspects in the Florida murders, but they were ruled out when they passed the lie detector tests of the day.

Now the Florida case is being examined again — and at least one area newspaper, the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald–Tribune, doubts that the two events are connected.

Well, that's another topic — to be resolved at a later date.

Today's topic is the 45th anniversary of the premiere of the movie that was based on "In Cold Blood," and moviegoers who hadn't read Capote's book probably had no idea that the killers ever went to Florida after they killed the Clutter family in Kansas.

It was never mentioned in the movie.

And there have been allegations for years that Capote invented some things to fit the story he wanted to tell. It was, as he described it, a "nonfiction novel," the story of an actual event but with many of its elements novelized — conversations, the sequence of events, etc.

In short, there are reasons to doubt that "In Cold Blood" told the whole truth.

But, even if it wasn't the whole truth, it still was a compelling story. The physical evidence of the killers' guilt is overwhelming so there is no reason to think the wrong men paid for the crimes.

And if Alvin Dewey, the investigator who pursued the killers, was as determined as John Forsythe portrayed him to be, few were going to quibble about the details of conversations or personalities.

I get the impression from what I have read that Dewey, who died in 1987, was, indeed, a dedicated lawman — and he may well have been a friend of the Clutter patriarch, Herb Clutter, and, as such, may have been particularly motivated to find his killers.

But Dewey also was a friend of Capote's — well, he became one in the course of Capote's research into the case — and it is possible, even likely, that remarks he made to Capote, whether speculative or factual, became part of the narrative.

It is also possible, as the Lawrence (Kans.) Journal–World pointed out more than seven years ago, that the Alvin Dewey of Capote's book was a composite character, combining the heroic efforts of several investigators into one character.

By nearly all accounts, Dewey was a driven, dedicated lawman, and the success of "In Cold Blood" brought him worldwide recognition. But his glowing literary treatment may simply have been the result of good P.R. Even if he didn't know that the book would become the best–selling true crime book of all time, Dewey may have been savvy enough to know the value of any good publicity.

And Capote was only too willing to provide it. Capote "needed a primary character," a retired police officer told the Journal–World.

Well, he sure got one with Alvin Dewey.

And he provided the model true crime writers have been following ever since.