Today we are looking at a pair of near contemporaneous films that chose to focus on Truman Capote around the period where he writes what becomes his most celebrated novel, In Cold Blood, 2005’s Capote and 2006’s Infamous.
Truman Capote, already famed as a New York-based writer, socialite, wit and raconteur, becomes intrigued with the news of a grizzly quadruple murder in a small town in Kansas, Holcomb. He’s particularly interested in how a community is affected by such a wound where, to an approximation, everybody knows each other – the population of Holcomb at this time would be about two hundred and fifty people.
Thinking there’s an article in there, or as it turns out, a book, he leaves his partner and his gossip-mongering friends and heads out to Holcomb with his friend from childhood and fellow author, Harper Lee. While initially the small town’s close knit community doesn’t warm to Capote, he persists until his charm and shameless namedropping wins their confidence, allowing them to take copious notes for his project about the victims and the community.
Just as he’s about to pack up and leave, he gets news that the killers have been caught. Harper leaves to continue writing her book, an obscure number called “To Kill a Mockingbird”, while Truman sets about getting access to interview the killers. Richard “Dick” Hickock is initially more open about discussing how and why they committed this crime, a robbery gone wrong based on duff information about an unlikely safe filled with thousands of dollars in cash in the Clutter farmstead.
Capote, however, is far more interested in the Perry Edward Smith who, in these portrayals at least, is the more unpredictable, with dangerous bouts of rage and violence punctuating what seems to be a more thoughtful, sensitive predisposition who aspires to artistry rather than criminality.
Smith initially has no interest in being included in Truman’s work, and it takes a revelation about share childhood traumas to get Smith to start opening up. From this point, the pair become close, to the point of one of the films we’ll talk about suggesting the relationship became intimate, although, perhaps fittingly given the criticisms of the strict veracity of Truman’s eventual output In Cold Blood, this point on their relationship is very much unsubstantiated.
Found guilty, Hickock and Smith are sentenced to death for their crimes and, appeals exhausted, they hang on April 14, 1965, with Truman present at their final chapter. The book, hailed as the first non-fiction novel, is released in 1966 and is a massive success, although the emotional wringer Capote’s been put through has taken its toll on his mental health, and although it’s not the focus of either film, it does seem to precipitate his slide into alcoholism and other, stronger, substance abuses that killed him, albeit sometime later, in 1984 at 59, far too young an age for someone this talented.
Toby Jones takes the role of Truman Capote in this 2006 outing, and while he’s a bit more widely known now, I’m of the impression that the production was trying to balance out his undeserved low profile by stacking the supporting cast with unexpectedly high profile actors given the prominence of the roles. Most notably there’s a post Munich, pre-Casino Royale Daniel Craig in the role of Perry Smith, alongside roles for Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee, Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow and Isabella Rossellini as Truman’s socialite friends, and Jeff Daniels as investigating officer Alvin Dewey. With such a cast, it’s understandable you’d want to give them a bit more screentime.
Infamous takes a rather broader, and consequently shallower tone than Capote, which is not necessarily a disadvantage in terms of broader accessibility.
While by no means a hagiography, there’s a certain sense that Infamous is rather less keen to delve into Capote’s darker, or at least rather more duplicitous side of Capote’s nature.
As mentioned in the intro, it’s a film that’s not afraid to take a few flyers on the factual side of things to spice things up, particularly in the scenes with Daniel Craig towards the end of the film, but as best as I can tell these events are “true” in the Donald Trump sense of the word. They do, arguably, make for more dramatic scenes, but as Capote a year earlier proved, you don’t need to resort to the salacious and invented to get to that destination.
It feels a lighter-weight film than Capote, or at least much lighter and less consistent in tone. The cuts to talking head segments in the early running seem more like a way to get more mileage out of the cast than a necessary piece of storytelling, and feel like they’ve been dropped in from a different script, particularly when they’re dropped after the first half hour.
For its flaws, Infamous remains a very good film, and Toby Jones may make for a more convincing Capote than Hoffman does. It’s been unfairly overshadowed by Capote, and it very much deserves your attention.
It would be perverse to insist that Infamous was really giving much more of an overview into Truman Capote’s life, but if you’re watching it back to back with Capote, it does seem that way. Capote gives us the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role, and while the cast does include the likes of Catherine Keener and Chris Cooper as Harper Lee and Alvin Dewey, it might as well not have.
Even more so than Infamous, the entirety of this film is Hoffman’s Capote – even when he’s interviewing Clifton Collins Jr.’s Perry Smith, the focus is definitively on Capote. This may be paying short shrift to Collins, but Hoffman is properly mesmerising in this role.
While Infamous isn’t exactly hagiographic, it seems to want to skew into being a more generally approachable and doesn’t analyse Capote’s actions in any great depth, whereas Capote is rather more willing to showcase the sleazier side of Truman’s business, as he’s happy to lie, cheat and bribe his way to get his story and his character certainly isn’t painted in shades of sweetness and light.
Bennet Miller has had quite the run of films, if you can call it a run given the spacing, with this, Moneyball and Foxcatcher building a powerful, if short CV. He’s certainly put more in the way of artistry into this film than Douglas McGrath did in Infamous – this is by far the more cinematic of the pair.
Capote perhaps edges it out as the better film, but not by much at all. It’s greatest strength – Hoffman’s turn as Capote – is also the closest it has to a weakness, as by comparison everyone around him seems poorly drawn. However, Hoffman is so compelling it’s very easy to overlook that. It’s still one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and regardless of how accurate this portrayal of Truman Capote is, it’s captivating. Super recommended.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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