The producer of VALMONT was asked if he’d learned anything from its commercial failure, following in the wake of Stephen Frears’ DANGEROUS LIAISONS, which had successfully tackled the same book. He said yes, as a matter of fact he had learned something. “Never make a film somebody’s just made.”
The only exceptions I can think of to the rule that the first film out of the trap in a movie-race wins, are ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, which was unharmed by following on the heels of a cheaper, more sombre ROBIN HOOD (“You do know this isn’t the Kevin Costner film?” concerned staff would ask customers buying tickets for the Patrick Bergin version) and the ANTZ / A BUG’S LIFE and DEEP IMPACT / ARMAGEDDON face-offs.
And so to INFAMOUS, a fine little film by Doug McGrath, which came and went with little fuss, all its tremulous thunder stolen by CAPOTE. Apart from coming first, CAPOTE had a star of sorts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had paid his dues and was ready for Oscar appreciation. You may have heard people say that INFAMOUS is a better film, and I’d like to add my voice to that small hubbub of approval. INFAMOUS is not only livelier, funnier, more moving, more erotic and more intelligent, it is better cast.
It may have hurt McGrath’s film that people hadn’t heard of its star, but there’s no arguing he chose the right man (though I wouldn’t mind seeing Zelda Rubinstein, the little woman from POLTERGEIST, play Capote). Toby Jones, son of the unique Freddie Jones, a Shadowplay favourite, has two crucial advantages over the somewhat bear-like Hoffman. (1) Jones is a little guy, like Capote. This turns out to be more important than you’d think, allowing references to Capote’s smallness and accompanying toughness. (2) Jones has a much better script to work from. McGrath’s writing flows more smoothly than that of CAPOTE scribe Dan Futterman (this may be to do with the direction also), traversing the story in a pacy but unhurried fashion, where CAPOTE seems slow, threatening to stall altogether at times. McGrath seems bolder in his handling of artistic license, too. It’s ironic that both films take Capote to task for fictionalising reality, and both films are forced by necessity to invent their own versions of the truth. McGrath embraces this and concentrates on telling a good dramatic story.
My least favourite thing about CAPOTE, which had good acting and a strong picturesque feel for Kansan landscapes, was its attempt to create some kind of comparison between the crimes committed by the killers Capote chose to write about, and Capote’s supposed moral crime in exploiting their story. I simply can’t see any justification for making a comparison at all. Whatever Capote’s behaviour may be, it is in no way comparable to snuffing an entire family. Let’s be sensible. INFAMOUS manages to avoid milking this tempting comparison, detailing Capote’s dishonesties and betrayals without suggesting that his guilt has any equivalence to that of the cold-blooded murderers he woos.
McGrath’s brightness has other advantages too. While CAPOTE’s highlight is the author giving a public reading of In Cold Blood, which showcases Hoffman’s skill and command of our attention, but reveals the weakness of the script in comparison to Capote’s prose, INFAMOUS doesn’t quote the book at length but does provide a higher standard of wit throughout.
CAPOTE is a decent TV movie with an outstanding central performance from a superb actor who does everything possible to overcome a physical inappropriateness to the role.
INFAMOUS is a modestly conceived but very smart and interesting movie with an outstanding central performance from an equally superb actor who is able to fit the role perfectly, and I hope we’ll be hearing a lot more from him.
And then there’s Richard Brooks’s film of IN COLD BLOOD, which is a BLOODY MASTERPIECE, and Capote’s book itself, which is even better.