Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Capote (2005)

Dir. Bennett Miller
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Bruce Greenwood

In November 1959 Perry Smith and Richard Hickock killed a family of four in a burglary gone wrong. Celebrated author Truman Capote travelled out to investigate the effects of the slayings on the Kansas town of Holcomb. When the perpetrators were apprehended he switched his attention to them as well. In 1965 he published a book about the case, entitled In Cold Blood. Two years later a film dramatisation of that book was released. This was the film I watched earlier in the week. And in 2005 the film Capote was released. This film chronicles the genesis of that original ‘non-fiction novel’. (A second film, Infamous, was released about exactly the same subject matter the following year with an intriguing cast that included Toby Jones as Capote, Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee, Daniel Craig as Perry, Jeff Daniels as Dewey as well as Sigourney Weaver and Gwyneth Paltrow).

In Capote the novelist Truman Capote is portrayed as a talented author and raconteur, a sensitive man clinging on to scraps of affection, a manipulative liar, a determined and ambitious individual, a vain monomaniac. He has many different strands that are teased out by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance. He spots a story in a grisly killing and travels out from his world of New York cocktail parties to the small Kansas town of Holcomb. At first the locals shy away from him: he is alien and tactless. It is up to his friend Nelle – otherwise known as Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) – to smooth their ruffled feathers. In the end he wins his way into the right circles simply because he is a celebrity. His tales of Humphrey (Bogart) and John (Huston) sprinkle a little bit of stardust over the Kansas prairie and get him an ‘in’ into the investigation. When the killers are caught and charged he gets access to them. In particular he establishes a connection with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.)… or maybe Smith establishes a connection with Capote. He sees there is more than an article in this case, there is a whole book. But he needs access to Smith and Hickock. He provides them with a lawyer so that they can appeal for a stay of execution, giving him more time to winkle the details out of Smith. He starts to write. But he needs an ending. As the killers appeal again and are granted another stay of execution he starts to feel frustrated. He complains of the “torture” of not being able to complete his work. Smith keeps contacting him, asking for another lawyer to handle their appeal. Truman ignores it. Eventually all legal recourse runs out. The killers have a date with the gallows. Truman is there to see them die. He gets the ending to his novel, but the implication is that his guilt overpowers him. He put his own work and ambition before the lives of two men who considered him a friend. He betrayed them. He tries to justify himself down the phone-line to Nelle: “There wasn’t anything I could have done to save them.” “Maybe not,” she bites back, “but the fact is, you didn’t want to.”

Truman Capote comes out of the film a not very sympathetic character. He enjoys being the centre of attention. He pays a railway porter to praise his work in front of Nelle. When her own work, To Kill A Mockingbird, is made into a movie (a very good one as I have already seen this year) Capote mutters that he doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. He tends to steer conversations back to himself. He lies again and again to Perry, whether it is about the book’s title, his progress in writing it, or about the man’s sister missing him (she actually warned Truman that he was a violent killer). He essentially abandons Perry for a year while he flies off to Spain. Coming back he does nothing to find the pair a new lawyer. Having raised their hopes by buying them more time so that he could write his book, their continued existence is now depriving him of the ending he craves. But just as the consequences of their actions finally catch up with Smith and Hickock, so they do with Capote. His book is a smash and reinvents fiction, but he never finishes another work. He has to carry the guilt of his actions with him forever more.

All he said was "I could murder a cup o' tea"...

 The film is about the clashes of two contradictory impulses. Truman talks of two worlds existing in the US, “the quiet conservative life and the life of those two men – the underbelly, the criminally violent. Those two worlds converged that bloody night.”  He wants to explore that clash. But there is clash between him with his Bergdorf mufflers and the folk of Holcomb with their Sears & Roebuck hats. And there is the clash within him between his ego and his compassion. His partner Jack (Bruce Greenwood) seems first to be jealous of the time Truman spends with Nelle, and then the attention he gives to Perry, even accusing Capote of having fallen in love with the man. Yet there are links too. Perry’s tales about his unhappy childhood remind Truman of his own. He tells Nelle that it is “as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.” Perry becomes a man who would slit your throat. Truman just becomes a man who would stab you in the back. There is steel behind the shrill giggles and camp hand gestures. The folks of Holcomb never really forgave Truman Capote for concentrating on the murderers rather than the murdered; I’m not sure that the ghosts of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith would ever forgive him for abusing their trust.

I found watching In Cold Blood invaluable to my understanding of Capote. Perry’s limp and need for aspirin are never explained in Capote. References to being “Cornered” and “the warehouse” only make sense once you know Perry is referring to the location of the gallows. The downside is that after the visceral impact of In Cold Blood, Capote just feels a little extraneous.

What have I learnt about Kansas?
The film In Cold Blood showed the wind and rain of Kansas. Capote shows its snow. The words ‘cold’ and ‘exposed’ spring to mind.

Admittedly, the film is set in the early ‘60s, but there are one or two elements of the Kansas depicted that seem, well, backward. Certain parts of the state have banned Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And the prison governor had to decide whether a man with a Cherokee parent would count as ‘white’ or not for the purposes of jailing him; the implication being that non-whites have an even less pleasant time of it than whites. However the Kansans openness and trust compare favourably to manipulative big city types like Truman.

Can we go there?
Again, the same places appear as in In Cold Blood: Holcomb, the Clutter house, the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, the ‘Corner’. However director Bennett Miller took a different tack to Richard Brooks. Rather than setting the action in the exact same locations as the original crime the action in Capote isn’t even set in the same country. Filming took place in Manitoba, Canada. Winnipeg and the town of Selkirk to its north, stood in for Holcomb (when the murderers first arrive they are walked up the steps of the Manitoba State Legislature, and Gilbart’s Funeral Home in Selkirk is where Truman finds the coffins of the Clutters). And the Stony Mountain Institution in Rockwood stood in for the prison in Lansing. Interior scenes were not filmed on location; old fixtures and fittings such as toilets and sinks from the prison were used on set however.

In fact, only one section was filmed in the U.S. as far as I can make out. Those scenes on the Costa Brava in Spain? Malibu in California.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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