Capote (2005)

US, Canada / 114 minutes / color / Sony Pictures Classics, UA, Columbia Dir: Bennett Miller Pr: Caroline Baron, William Vince, Michael Ohoven Scr: Dan Futterman Story: Capote: A Biography (1988 nonfiction) by Gerald Clarke Cine: Adam Kimmel Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bob Balaban, Bruce Greenwood, Amy Ryan, Mark Pellegrino, Allie Mickelson, Marshall Bell, Araby Lockhart, R.D. Reid, Rob McLaughlin, Harry Nelken, Bess Meyer.

Although this is one of those movies so full of good things that it’s hard to know where to start the list, its relation to noir is, as it were, doubly tangential: it depicts the background to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood (1966), the first screen adaptation of which, In Cold Blood (1967), has claims to membership of the film noir canon. (Capote has a few visual quotes from that movie, as when the murderer Andy is led to the prison annex for execution.) Its backdrop is a crime and its punishment, but really its concern is the relationship between the fanfared author and one of the killers, and the way that this relationship as much as the original, abhorrent crime sparked Capote’s creativity.

Capote - 2 Hoffman as Capote

Philip Seymour Hoffman captures the essence of Truman Capote.

Looking around after the wild success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) for a new project, writer and New Yorker columnist Truman Capote (Hoffman) finds his attention caught by a New York Times account of the murder of an entire Kansas family. With the connivance of his agent William Shawn (Balaban), he travels to Kansas with his best friend since childhood, Nelle Harper Lee (Keener)—this was after the latter had written To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), in which the character Dill was based on Capote, but before that novel had been published. The locals are shy of the camp, affected Capote, so Nelle does much of the interviewing of those involved. The pair ingratiate themselves with Alvin Dewey (Cooper), the KBI agent in charge of the case, and Dewey’s wife Marie (Ryan).

After Perry Smith (Collins) and Dick Hickock (Pellegrino) have been seized in Las Vegas and brought back to Holcomb, Kansas, the scene of their crime, Capote soon encounters Perry encaged in the home/office of the local sheriff, Walter Sanderson (Nelken). Friendship blossoms—in Capote’s case, perhaps it’s even love, despite his established relationship with fellow-writer Jack Dunphy (Greenwood).

Capote - 1 Capote's first sight of Perry Smith

Truman’s first sight of the murderer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), the man who would change the course of his life.

After the men are convicted, Capote helps them where he can—beginning with finding them a better lawyer—but it’s always evident that he’s doing this for Perry, who comes to regard him as a true friend and habitually addresses him as amigo. Yet Capote consistently lies to Perry about the progress and especially the title of the book he’s writing. As months turn into years because of repeated appeals, Capote, always in danger of lapsing into complete self-infatuation, becomes more and more horrified at the quandary in which he finds himself: he cannot finish his book until Perry and Dick have been executed. When finally this occurs, Capote finds the guts to be there for his friend Perry at the hanging, but immediately afterward starts acting as if the true nightmare of the event had been his own, forced to witness it, rather than Perry’s. On the phone to Nelle he says, self-pityingly, “And there wasn’t anything I could have done to save them.” Her reply, “Maybe not. But the fact is, you didn’t want to”, is a pinpoint-perfect identification of the truth.

Capote - 3 Keener as Harper Lee

Catherine Keener is superb as Truman’s level-headed, grounding anchor, his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee.

There are some brightly gleaming insights into the story related in the 1967 movie and its remake, In Cold Blood (1996 TVM). In the 1967 version the reporter Bill Jensen (Paul Stewart) offers a second meaning of Capote’s title: that it’s not so much the slaughter of the Clutters that was carried out in cold blood, more the execution of the perpetrators. Here yet a third meaning is proposed, this time by Alvin Dewey to Capote: the cold-bloodedness is Capote’s, as he hovers around the case and the killers, motivated entirely by his own selfishness. And Perry’s sister Linda Murchak (Meyer) gives a perspective on her brother that’s absent from the two movie adaptations: “I used to love him. He was my little doll. He scares me now,” she explains to Capote, adding a little later: “Don’t be taken in by my brother. He’s got this sensitive side he’ll show. You believe he’s gentle and so easily hurt, but he’d just as soon kill you as shake your hand—I believe that.”

Hoffman’s depiction of Capote is quite brilliant, not just as a piece of acting but as an impersonation. Keener, too, provides an excellent Harper Lee. All down the line, in fact, there are fine performances, with Cooper in top form as the special agent who’s a jovial family man at one moment and a dour avenger the next. Kimmel’s skilled and subtle use of hand-held camera (or an imitation thereof) adds a documentary feel to important scenes, such as when Capote says his farewells to Perry and Dick as they await the journey to the execution shed. At the Oscars, Capote won as Best Movie and Hoffman as Best Actor, with Keener being nominated as Best Supporting Actress, Miller as Best Director, and Futterman for Best Adapted Screenplay. There were accolades galore elsewhere, with Hoffman being recognized as Best Actor at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and elsewhere.

The following year, most of the same events were made the basis of another very good movie, Infamous (2006).

On Capote

7 thoughts on “Capote (2005)

  1. Pingback: In Cold Blood (1996 TVM) | Noirish

  2. Pingback: In Cold Blood (1967) | Noirish

  3. So happy that you reviewed this as a logical follow-up to both versions of IN COLD BLOOD, and as a timely tribute to the great actor Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, whose untimely passing remains a matter of deep public mourning. His Oscar winning performance is simply extraordinary, and as you note this can be largely framed as an “impersonation.” The nourish connections of course are there in the kinship between the film and the two versions of Capote’s novel, especially the first. I completely agree that both Catherine Keener as Harper Lee and Chris Cooper as the agent were both stupendous, and the excellent direction includes that notable use of the hand-held camera.

    Buffo sketch of the story and fascinating analysis of this outstanding work!

  4. Pingback: Infamous (2006) | Noirish

  5. Terrific review, John. I noticed this on your list of films reviewed in 2014 and having watched the DVD earlier this week I thought I’d drop by to read your post.

    “On the phone to Nelle he says, self-pityingly, “And there wasn’t anything I could have done to save them.” Her reply, “Maybe not. But the fact is, you didn’t want to”, is a pinpoint-perfect identification of the truth.” Spot on, this gets to the heart of Capote’s relationship with Perry.

    I don’t know how I managed to miss this at the cinema as Hoffman and Keener are two of my favourite actors. Anyway, there we go. I’m glad to have caught up with it on DVD.

    As a slight aside, I don’t know if you’ve seen Foxcatcher, the new one from Bennett Miller? We managed to get tickets to a preview screening at the London Film Fest and it’s another terrific film. A very dark, tense and controlled piece of work.

    • Many thanks for dropping by to give your reactions to the movie, Jacqui. It’s indeed pretty splendid. If you get the chance, it’s well worth watching Infamous (2006) as well — it gives a different, and (perhaps surprisingly) by no means less good, take on the same material. In particular, Toby Jones gives an absolutely wonderful alternative reading of Capote.

      I haven’t seen Foxcatcher yet, but doubtless will do so in due course. At the moment I’m fairly tied to the house as I try to get the current 750ml opus* finished.

      * Like a magnum opus, but less ostentatious.

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