Almost exactly a year ago the film "Capote" opened to well-deserved praise, particularly for Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as Truman Capote, fascinated by the murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas, getting close to the murderers and writing his remarkable "In Cold Blood" about it all. Now we have a second film, "Infamous," covering exactly the same ground, in many ways at least as good as the first, but with some fascinating differences that make it equally essential to esperience.
Where "Capote" was based on Gerald Clarke's biography, "Infamous" is based on George Plimpton's; and different eyes see different things. The time frame is the same, covering the five years from Capote's spotting the story in The New York Times and deciding to cover it for The New Yorker, up through the executions of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the murderers. But much is different here; Plimpton and writer-director Douglas McGrath show us a Capote in more particularized moments of his New York life: his gossipy lunches with his retinue of rich ladies like Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), Slim Keith (Hope Davis) and Marella Agnelli (Isabella Rossellini), who all speak to the camera at a later time about Truman. There's also Capote's partner Jack Dunphy (John Benjamin Hickey), shy, resentful yet accepting; and Bennett Cerf, his publisher (Peter Bogdanovich). In many ways "Infamous" paints the story with a broader canvas than did "Capote," but at the same time it takes advantage of specific moments, like Truman trading gossip with his ladies, telling tales out of school, loving his life as the center of the group.
And this Capote is different from Hoffman's. Played by Toby Jones - small (as Capote was), with that notoriously high, lisping voice, flamboyant outfits and mincing walk - he is mistaken for a woman when he arrives in Kansas, yet is unfazed by it. I think Mr. Jones has given us as believable and fascinating a character as did Mr. Hoffman, but this film is in some ways much harder, more frightening even, than that was. Accompanied by his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee, who was about to publish her own blockbuster "To Kill A Mockingbird" (I had thought no one could equal Catherine Keener's performance as Nelle Harper Lee in "Capote," but here Sandra Bullock gives the best performance of her career in the same role), the two form a delicately balanced pair who succeed in opening their middle-American hosts to a New York sensibility. There is a marvelous sequence when Capote, telling them stories about Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones, recalls having beaten Bogart at arm wrestling - and then doing the same to the Kansans.
One major difference between the films is the characterization of Perry Smith; where in the first film he was a sad, talented, almost victimized man who became dependent on Capote for any hope of avoiding the gallows, who kept the secret of exactly what happened on the night of the murders, yet could at the end be manipulated into revealing it all, here, as played by Daniel Craig (yes, the new James Bond), he is a predator who sees Truman as prey, something that Capote finds himself attracted to. Smith is like a predatory crow or raven, sharp-featured, always looking for a victim. From the beginning Smith admits his role, and we even see in flashback some of what happened. The film doesn't shy away from that, nor from witnessing the deaths of Hickock and Smith, which have the added resonance of knowing that Truman has fallen for Perry.
There's a fascinating moment as the film opens; Capote and Slim Keith are at a nightclub in New York, listening to a singer (Gwyneth Paltrow) do "What Is This Thing Called Love." In the middle of the song she falters, stops, slowly gathers herself emotionally, comes back to the song. Is it part of the performance? Is it a real breakdown? As we watch it, we also watch Truman, fascinated, as he also wonders and thinks it through. It's one of the moments that make this film stand out so well.
"Infamous" is not perfect, though its faults are small; mostly they lie in some lines of the script, lines that don't quite ring true as conversation, lines that give the actors a bit of trouble to say convincingly. They are elevated in a literary sense and don't sit easily on the tongue; it would have helped to make them more colloquial. But that's nit-picking; the film is thoughtful, powerful and fascinating from beginning to end.