The biopic with the great character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, the American Alec Guinness, as the fey author of the first modern true crime book, In Cold Blood, opens Friday, Sept. 30 in NYC and LA. Here are some brief excerpts from my review in the October 10th issue of The American Conservative (now on newsstands). The film recounts the visits Capote made to one of the two condemned murderers, Perry Miller, on Death Row:
In a sinister example of life imitating art, Miller was played in the 1967 movie version of "In Cold Blood" by actor Robert Blake, who was recently acquitted in his wife's murder...
"Capote" is rewarding, even though the film's criticism of the author is tendentious...
Capote helped the pair get a good lawyer to craft their first appeal against the death penalty. But after he'd completed most of his manuscript and realized how strong it was, his need for a dramatic ending (such as, say, their hangings) made him increasingly impatient with their endless appeals.
Screenwriter Dan Futterman attacks Capote for being a heartless monster who manipulated poor Miller into telling him his secrets even though Capote eventually hoped for his execution.
In reality, of course, the true monsters were the murderers, who had decided days before their home invasion to shotgun the whole family to eliminate all witnesses. With his conventional liberal bias against capital punishment, Futterman doesn't realize that without the death penalty, repeat offenders, who face long prison terms if convicted of robbery, would more often find it logical to kill their robbery victims to keep their identities secret.
The death penalty is a complicated issue, but a key point that I almost never hear brought up is how, in our era of long prison sentences for non-homicidal offences, having an ultimate punishment serves to deter criminals from killing their victims to eliminate the witnesses.
That's the flip side of the strongest argument against the death penalty: the fairly high proportion of mistaken convictions in homicide cases. The reason DNA evidence is has gotten a bunch of people off death row in recent years is because murder is inherently a tougher crime to acquire foolproof evidence about than, say, robbery, rape, or violent assault, precisely because the best witness -- the victim -- can't testify because he's been murdered.