INFAMOUS - DVD review

...more direct, perhaps more revealing, and certainly more graphic than the earlier Capote film.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Don't let stars, budgets, or box office fool you. They can all be deceiving.

"Infamous," Warner Independent Pictures' 2006 biopic of author Truman Capote, has a big-name cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, Jeff Daniels, Toby Jones, and Peter Bogdanovich among others, yet its total budget was only about $13,000,000, a mere pittance when it comes to film expenditures these days. At the same time, neither an all-star cast nor an intriguing subject could save the film from bombing at the box office, where it barely pulled $1,000,000 total. That sum would normally not even cover the salary of one of its leads.

But don't let that disappointing box office fool you, either. "Infamous" is really quite a good motion picture. Why it failed initially is anybody's guess. My suspicion is that the public simply got it confused with the previous year's "Capote," which won an Academy Award for its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Or people didn't want to see another movie about the same person; not so soon after the first picture, anyway. Who knows. In any case, "Infamous" is worth a look, even if you've already seen "Capote"; it makes a fascinating comparison and fills in further details about the man's life. More important, it's just a darned good movie on its own.

Today, everybody's heard of Truman Capote. However, in 1959, when the movie takes place, he had not yet written "In Cold Blood," and the relative few people who did know him probably recognized him primarily as the writer of the novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (which Hollywood had not yet filmed), a handful of short stories, books, and plays, and a whole lot of local gossip about his celebrity friends. "Infamous," like "Capote," recounts the events surrounding the author's writing of "In Cold Blood."

Basing his screenplay on the book "Truman Capote" by George Plimpton, writer-director Douglas McGrath ("Emma," "Nicholas Nickleby") creates in "Infamous" a fascinating paradox: the portrait of a man who appeared to have an army of friends, who could captivate everyone around him, but whom few people could ultimately trust. Yet it is that very word "trust" that helped the writer gain access to his subjects' most intimate secrets. Was he as sincere with people as he said, or did he use his apparent sincerity to get close enough to people to make them open up for his own personal gain? Did he use those with whom he made friends as material for his books? While we will probably never know for sure, as Capote died in 1984, his life has left fodder for much speculation, as we see here and in "Capote."

According to Capote himself, everybody was his "oldest and dearest friend," and he made friends with some of the most important celebrities of his era. It is Capote's glamorous New York social life that McGrath juxtaposes with his relationships with two condemned killers of a Kansas family, while both criminals were awaiting execution on death row. Eventually, Capote's socialite friends would forsake him as untrustworthy because they revealed their deepest secrets to him, only to have him reveal them to the world. Could Capote make the two murderers open up to him in a like manner, and could he get them to trust him enough to tell their real story to the world?

The movie begins in a night club, as singer Kitty Dean (Gwyneth Paltrow) breaks down during a very personal love song, with Capote looking on and appearing to sympathize. Then we get the New York whirl, where Capote was the friend of all the right people, including Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich), publisher, bon vivant, and founder of the Random House publishing firm; and Capote's bevy of "swans" as he called them, among whom numbered Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), socialite supreme and wife of William Paley, founder of CBS; Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), fashion editor of "Harper's Bazaar" and "Vogue" magazines; Marella Agnelli (Isabella Rossellini), fashion princess; and Slim Keith (Hope Davis), another arbiter of New York style.

Capote's closest confidants, though, were his longtime companion, author Jack Dunphy (John Benjamin Hickey), and his childhood friend, Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock). Bullock is perfect in the role of Lee, a natural for the unpretentious Southern lady who so contrasted with the exciting, alluring women of the fashion world. It is good to see Bullock away from her usual comic roles. Yet it is Toby Jones as Capote who is at the heart of the show, and he, too, is very, very good. As good in the role as Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar for his portrayal the previous year? Perhaps Jones hasn't quite the charisma of Hoffman, but he looks and sounds even more convincing in the part, and he is at the center of every scene, pulling them off nicely with a flamboyant toughness that suits the real author at this time. In Toby Jones we do not get the effete, inebriated, pip-squeak caricature that Capote himself encouraged in later television interviews, but a shrewd, determined man on a mission.

Reading in the newspaper about the murders of the Clutter family in Kansas, Capote decides to attempt a new kind of journalism, the "nonfiction novel" as he called it, bringing fictional techniques to a true story. Today, we take the docudrama for granted; Capote practically invented it. He persuades pal Harper Lee (who had just finished her novel "To Kill a Mockingbird") to accompany him to Kansas, where he finds she is good for him; she hands moderate him, tone down his audacity and remind him to be polite. In Kansas, Capote proceeds to charm the pants off an entire town, including the detective in charge of the case, Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels). The scene of Christmas dinner with the solidly middle-class, middle-American Deweys is priceless.

Anyway, Capote cons his way into the cells of both killers, first Dick Hickock (Lee Pace), the chatty, crazier of the two, and then, more important, Perry Smith, played by Daniel Craig. Yes, it's that Daniel Craig, now of Bond fame. With his hair dyed black and affecting an American accent, Craig's Smith is a bundle of contradictions, a sensitive artist's soul wrapped up in a hardened, rowdy, murderous roughneck of a character. Capote's biggest challenge is winning Smith's confidence, and, once he does, keeping it. Smith is on to him, though; he knows Capote just wants a good story, and he isn't about to have his life mocked and reviled in a book.

But Capote and Smith do eventually strike up a close relationship in Smith's tiny cell, one that would serve both men to advantage, especially Capote who went on to become a multimillionaire because of the book. Still, was their friendship genuine? Capote thought so. But can we trust what he says and trust what we see, essentially through his eyes? Apparently, writer-director McGrath thought so, and "Infamous" is more direct, perhaps more revealing, and certainly more graphic than the earlier "Capote" film, if not quite so moving.

Interestingly, after the publication of Capote's "In Cold Blood" and Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," neither author produced anything more of substance. Did they both pour their hearts and souls into those two books and have nothing left to offer? Bennett Cerf remarked about "In Cold Blood" that the book made Capote, and it ruined him. Afterwards, the Capote turned on his friends, telling their secrets to the world, losing them perhaps on purpose as he discovered a new side to himself. We'll never know. Nor does the movie "Infamous" clearly illuminate the issue. It ends with the executions of the two murderers and suggests that their deaths pained Capote greatly, enough to change his entire life. Maybe.

In any case, I enjoyed "Infamous" at least as much as I enjoyed "Capote" the year before. The two movies provide similar but not quite the same points of view on a couple of America's most infamous killers and one of America's most infamous authors.

Video:
The video comes off with mixed results. On the plus side, we've got most of the film's 1.85.1 theatrical aspect ratio preserved in an anamorphic transfer that fills a 16x9 widescreen television; a very high bit rate; deep black levels; and bright, vivid colors. On the minus side, we get fairly ordinary definition; a hint of grain, probably inherent to the original print; and an image that often seems too dark, with facial tones, especially, looking too intense for real life.

Audio:
As the story is almost entirely dialogue drive, you wouldn't expect much in the way of dramatic sound effects. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, in fact, delivers superb midrange reproduction, so speech is clear and clean. Moreover, in the background score as well as music originating within the story, like nightclub bands, there is a wide stereo spread and a good sense of musical ambience in the surrounds. In addition, there is an extremely deep and ominous-sounding bass when it's needed. So, the audio does its job with a minimum of fuss or bother.

Extras:
The primary extra on the disc is an audio commentary by screenwriter-director Douglas McGrath, who explains his research into Capote's life and how he interpreted them in his movie. Beyond that, you get twenty-eight scene selections, but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
After the success of "In Cold Blood," Capote published very little material, as I've said. He retreated almost exclusively into his own world of socialites, talk shows, and night clubs. But to have produced even one, let alone two or three, great works of literature is more than most artists can boast. "Infamous" provides a tantalizing glimpse into the personal life and workings of the writer; and while Toby Jones may not have quite the screen presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman, he creates a satisfyingly real portrait of the diminutive author.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
7
Extras
4
Film Value
7