Infamous (15)

Mar 12, 2008
Cranbrook Film Society

In the dying days of the Eisenhower administration a brutal multiple murder took place in Kansas, in the heartlands, or the badlands of the United States. And it was here that the successful but not yet famous writer, Truman Capote came, leaving his New York literati cafe life behind (temporarily) to try to bring Art and Literature to bear on these terrible acts. He wanted to create a new form of journalism which would use fictional techniques to illuminate a real and tragic story. The book that eventually resulted, ‘In Cold Blood’ was a huge critical and popular success.

Hollywood has produced many great films about multiple murderers, often sympathetically, like Bonnie and Clyde, Taxi Driver and the best of all, Terence Malick’s Badlands. That such films resonate in the US and seem quintessentially American (where would the UK’s Badlands be? The West Midlands, the Yorkshire Moors, maybe Brighton?) might suggest that unacknowledged but barely sublimated rage continues to play a (disruptive) part in the American dream.

That ‘Infamous’ is about (self-)destruction would be more apparent to an American audience than it would be for us, in so far as Capote would have been known to older Americans as one of the first television ‘personalities’ appearing on game shows and quiz shows through the sixties and seventies, in a very public decline from literary eminence. He became the man who everyone knew ‘used to be a famous writer’. In trading on his wit in these TV shows, whilst apparently selling his soul, he represented a very human falling from grace, a slow destroying of the best part of himself. And in that sense the film is nostalgic, looking back to a time when people really thought literary talent mattered. No-one today is ever going to accuse Sharon Osborne of letting her real talents wither on the vine.

A way of looking at the film (and at the Oscar winning ‘Capote’ that appeared two years before) is that Capote is an emblematic figure, representing that broad cultural and social change to a mass media culture of consumption that has also consumed ‘serious’ literature. In conceiving of ‘In Cold Blood’ Capote thought he was taking Literature to the culturally deprived Mid-West but in reality he was just the self-regarding instrument of the nascent tabloids and sensationalising news networks, over which he had no control. Literary ‘taste’ is now determined not by Capote’s successors on the New Yorker but by Richard and Judy. Not that the film explicitly seeks any of the roots of Capote’s later problems there, but settles instead for the cliché, of which Hollywood is fond for obvious reasons, that producing Literature or Art is a painful process which sometimes ‘costs’ too much.

Having said all that it’s an enjoyable film with an excellent central performance from Toby Young and with lots of star names doing a turn. A great deal hinges on the chemistry established between Young and the bisexual murderer, Perry Smith, played by Daniel Craig, and there is enough of human feeling created between them to convince us that the remainder of Capote’s life was lived in the shadow of their moments together.

Douglas McGrath | USA | 2006 | 110 minutes | 15