Infamous (2006)

US / 118 minutes / color / Killer, John Wells, Warner Independent Dir & Scr: Douglas McGrath Pr: Christine Vachon, Jocelyn Hayes, Anne Walker-McBay Story: Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall his Turbulent Career (1997) by George Plimpton Cine: Bruno Delbonnel Cast: Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Peter Bogdanovich, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson, Sigourney Weaver, John Benjamin Hickey, Lee Pace, Bethlyn Gerard, Lee Ritchey, Brett Brock, Frank Curcio, Michael Panes.

I must admit, I came into this movie with preconceptions. Having heard little about it (with hindsight, too little) except that its writer/director had created out of whole cloth a jailhouse romantic liaison between Perry Smith and Truman Capote, and having looked at all the bankable stars in the cast list, I’d jumped to the conclusion that it was merely a sensationalistic, opportunistic rehash of the previous year’s Capote (2005). Let me publicly, as Capote himself almost says herein, eat humble pie. This is an excellent movie in its own right, and arguably—although comparisons are pretty pointless when movies are this good—an even better one than its predecessor.

And, yes, there’s something of the star-juggling that I’d been ready to object to: Paltrow’s part, despite her high billing, is a mere cameo, as a nightclub singer, Kitty Dean; she sings her song very prettily, but the sequence is wholly unnecessary and never referred to again. Luckily it’s almost completely forgettable, so my irritation soon dissolved.

The bare bones are as per Capote, while the murder case itself was the subject of In Cold Blood (1967) and In Cold Blood (1996 TVM). Truman Capote (Jones), darling of the glitterati in NYC, is seeking inspiration for his next book when he comes across the brief New York Times report of the Clutter murder in Holcomb, Kansas. He persuades New Yorker editor William Shawn (Curcio) to commission a major article from him about the case (later that article would flower into a book, as we know), and off to Kansas he goes with lifelong friend Nelle Harper Lee (Bullock). At first no one is prepared to give the time of day to this outrageously gay popinjay, but a chance meeting with Marie Dewey (Gerard), wife of the cop in charge of the investigation, Al(vin) Dewey (Daniels), elicits an invitation to Christmas dinner for Nelle and himself, and thereafter all doors are open to them.

Infamous - 1 Arrival in Kansas

Arrival in Kansas.

Infamous - 4 News of the killers' capture

Truman (Toby Jones) reacts to the news of the killers’ capture.

In due course Dick Hickock (Pace) and Perry Smith (Craig, here with an affect disturbingly like that of Bond-era Sean Connery) are caught in Vegas and brought back to Kansas. As they await trial, Truman pulls strings to gain access to the two men. He finds Dick to be a superficially charming, anti-intellectual small-time psycho, just as expected. But Perry is another matter: a strange mixture of untutored would-be intellectual, sensitive soul and brute, he’s far more fascinating to Truman. In one piece of monologue, amid a discussion between him and Truman of art and what art is and does (a significant subtext of the movie), Perry sums up himself and his place adroitly:

My whole life, all I’ve wanted was to create a work of art. I sang, nobody listened. I painted, nobody looked. Now, Dick and me, we murder four people, and what’s going to come out of it? A work of art.

He was of course right.

Infamous - 5 Daniel Craig as Perry Smith

Daniel Craig delivers a particularly powerful version of Perry Smith.

This movie dwells little on the murders or the pair’s time on the lam. It’s much more concerned with Truman, with his willingness to compromise for his art, his ready glamorization of the events of his life, and his default tendency to manipulate those around them. He certainly manipulates Perry’s feelings, befriending him and even exploiting those latent homosexual tendencies that Dick has observed in his oft-times ethically fastidious partner-in-crime. (In the brief sequence showing the murders, it’s Dick’s taunting of Perry about his supposed homosexuality that sparks Perry into the climactic violence. Also, we should note that in this version Dick kills the two women.) After Perry and Truman have finally exchanged endearments and a passionate kiss (and who knows what more) in Perry’s cell, there’s brief sequence where we see Truman back in his hotel room, alternately staring at himself in the dressing-table mirror and avoiding his own gaze, clearly not knowing within himself if the encounter has been yet a further piece of exploitation or if he has genuinely fallen at least partly in love.

This uncertainty continues up until the murderers’ final appeals have been spurned and the countdown begins to their execution. It’s only at the execution itself, witnessed by Truman at the request of the two condemned men, that we finally become certain: Truman is losing not a journalistic subject or even a friend, but someone for whom he cares deeply. We look back on his occasional moments of bravado, when he has told friends that he wants the death penalty to be brought and the men to be executed so he can finish and publish his book, as just that: bravado. Although perfectly capable of callousness in dealing with his fellow humans, here he has been as expertly pretending it.

Infamous - 2 Jeff Daniels as Alvin Dewey

Jeff Daniels as the stalwart Alvin Dewey.

The narrative is quite frequently interrupted with PBS-documentary-style interview soundbites from Truman’s friends and acquaintances, mostly bright butterflies of the cocktail set like Slim Keith (Davis), Marella Agnelli (Rossellini), Diana Vreeland (Stevenson, in dominant form) and Babe Paley (Weaver), but also more significant figures like Truman’s publisher Bennett Cerf (Bogdanovich) and, briefly, Gore Vidal (Panes), plus Truman’s long-term partner, fellow writer Jack Dunphy (Hickey). This technique works very effectively, giving the piece something of the feel of a dramadoc, even though we know full well the more straightforward elements of the movie have been largely fictionalized.

But the real narrative triumph of Infamous is its ability to juxtapose times of genuine poignancy with moments of laugh-out-loud humor without either of these in any way detracting from the other. As a single example, there’s a powerful sequence when Nelle is admonishing Truman for the way he is almost unconsciously preparing to fabricate false realities in order that his book might improve upon the truth (just as this movie fictionalizes much of Truman’s own activities). The point that has raised Nelle’s ire is their discovery that Bonnie Clutter wasn’t the neurotic recluse Truman has set his mind on portraying but just an average woman going through a tough menopause. Nelle spells out to him the impropriety of doing this—that either he must write a novel or he must respect the human dignity of the people he’s dealing with—but it’s criticism that, predictably, he takes poorly. As she storms out of the room with an exasperated, “Well, it’s your book” he cattily snaps after her, “It is. My seventh.” A split second earlier our adrenalin was riding high as the pair fought; now we’re grinning; yet this scene, which is quite central to the movie’s subtext (what is fair or unfair if it’s done in the name of art?), has somehow lost none of its impact.

Infamous - 3 Indust archi

Infamous - 6 Jail

The impersonality of institutional architecture is finely captured by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel.

I hadn’t thought that Toby Jones’s Capote could possibly surpass Philip Seymour Hoffman’s rendition in the earlier movie, but I was wrong. Hoffman of course won an Oscar for his version; I can only assume it was for that reason that Jones’s performance went unrecognized by the Academy—one could hardly have two Truman Capotes winning in consecutive years. Jones did, however, win as British Actor of the Year at the London Critics Circle Film Awards. And, while one of my greatest reservations before watching the movie was how Sandra Bullock would fare as Harper Lee, especially bearing in mind how I’d been bowled over by Catherine Keener’s take on the character in the earlier movie, I needn’t have worried. I cannot think of a better rendition that I’ve ever seen from Bullock. We have two versions of Harper Lee to choose from; they’re each quite distinct from the other, and I wouldn’t like to say which is the finer.

 

On Amazon.com: Infamous

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5 thoughts on “Infamous (2006)

  1. Pingback: Capote (2005) | Noirish

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

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

  4. John, I certainly agree that there is more acute humor in this film than in CAPOTE, and that the film examines Truman’s character more attentively. On balance I think I would still give CAPOTE a slight edge, but I can’t blame you or anyone else for feeling otherwise, even slightly, as these films are definitely comparable. Jones is excellent -though perhaps not as superb as Hoffmann- and the film wholly engages. You have written an outstanding appraisal here.

    • Thanks as always for the kind words!

      Jones is excellent -though perhaps not as superb as Hoffmann

      It was some little while ago that I watched and wrote about both movies and, oddly, I find that it’s Jones’s performance rather than Hoffman’s that sticks in my mind. As good as Hoffman was in the role, on balance I’d say that Jones is even better — it’s as if he’s not only caught Capote perfectly but also managed to capture those moments when Capote was playing Capote — projecting an image to the public and even to himself. It was an extra level of depth that I don’t think Hoffman quite managed.

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