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He's Got The World On A String
Frank Sinatra proved he could make a mark in a dramatic role in the movie he did just before this one, "From Here To Eternity." He proves something else here, that he could dominate a film doing same.
Sinatra is basically the whole show here, a cold killer named Baron who sets his sights on the President of the United States. He and two henchmen pull into the town of Suddenly, California and set up a sniper's nest in a hillside home occupied by war widow Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), her father-in-law Pop (James Gleason), and her son Pidge (Kim Charney). Only the town sheriff (Sterling Hayden) knows the score, but he's no good with a gunshot wound in his arm. Or so Baron figures.
Sinatra seems to be playing Richard Widmark in his first and only psycho role. Thing is, it's a great Widmark impression. He's got the sneer, the giggle, and the ruthless efficiency to make this film work.
"One phony and she's got a kid with his throat cut," he tells the hostages. "Doesn't make much noise that way."
"Suddenly" is a film of its time, hokey in places with its Norman Rockwell images and soliloquies about patriotic duty and the wrongness of murder. The director, Lewis Allen, even has Sinatra speak into the camera a couple of times to illustrate how nasty he is. The beauty of Sinatra's performance is that he sells it. He did the same with a few hokey lyrics, too.
The supporting cast does an excellent job making sure you don't stop watching Sinatra. They are pretty wooden in the main. Hayden is the biggest surprise, very stiff and barking out his lines with unconvincing stentorian stiffness. Maybe he just didn't feel it; before the drama begins he's lecturing Pidge not to call his mother "she" and telling Ellen to get over being a widow and marry him already.
"You're diggin' a big black pit and shovin' us all down into it!" Or maybe she just don't dig sharing her precious bodily fluids with you, huh?
Allen has a stiff style that accentuates the unnaturalness of such scenes, but once it gets down to Sinatra and his goons in that house the film settles into a tough-nosed, believable suspense yarn that flies by. Baron is a strange guy, who likes to think he's just doing a job but clearly enjoys the power trip he's on much more. Using this knowledge will help the sheriff, and it also helps give Sinatra score more points for his character.
Called a "born killer" by the sheriff, Baron just nods thoughtfully and says "yeah" without a hint of menace. When Ellen tells him he's an animal, he grins: "How do you like your roast beef, medium rare or well done?" Even the way he moves through the room shows you he has skills.
Was this the real Sinatra? You kind of wonder when you finish, not just because of his hard reputation but how believable he is in the role. He never played such a villain again, which is sort of a shame. After "Suddenly," he didn't have to.
Movie Crazy (1932)
The Elmerization Of Harold
The advent of sound hit Harold Lloyd like a well-thrown pie, even if he maintained his box-office appeal for a while. Proof of that is this, his best-regarded sound picture.
Harold Hall (Lloyd) is a clumsy clod from the Midwest who dreams of making it big in Hollywood. After sending by accident someone else's photograph to a big studio, Harold is happily surprised to cadge an invite to Tinseltown. But getting there is one thing; does Harold have what it takes to stay there?
I can't say I hated everything about "Movie Crazy;" the opening score is buoyant and energetic. Most reviewers point to Constance Cummings' dynamic turn as an actress who takes a fancy to Harold; she is every bit as amazing as they say. But man this film makes Lloyd look bad!
Lloyd was a comic performer of great subtlety and inventiveness; qualities absent from what he delivers here. With his too-earnest delivery and prim inflections, he makes an odd impression as he overacts every big line. "When I come back, I'll come rolling in a Rolls-Royce," he tells his parents.
Worse, as with "Feet First" he plays an idiot, a far cry from the capable, sympathetic clown he essayed in silents. Sound transformed Buster Keaton into the dolt "Elmer;" here Lloyd works a lot of double takes and plays up his character's naïve stupidity at nearly every turn. Much of the comedy here involves Harold tripping over himself, oblivious to the world around him.
This works in his favor with Cummings' Mary Sears character, charmed by his stumbling and the fact he hasn't come on to her like every other guy in town. She nicknames him "Trouble" and plays a mean but funny trick on him, by playing up Harold's confusion that the Spanish bombshell she portrays in her latest movie is somebody else, not her.
I'd like "Movie Crazy" a lot more if they knew what to do with this inspired idea. Cummings has fun with the dual performance, and there is a fine scene where Harold approaches Mary in her Spanish disguise to get his pin back, so he can give it to Mary. She urges him to give her a good-bye kiss first, asking him how this Mary could know.
"Believe me, she sees everything!" Harold replies.
But instead of going in a screwball direction with this, Mary becomes genuinely hurt when her ruse works too well, and Harold is hurt in turn. The film limps on like this for another 30 minutes.
I think I know what the matter was with Lloyd and sound. In silents, he played an archetype, an engaging one that captured the zeitgeist of the time and meshed with the kind of physical comedy he perfected. But sound pushed him to play more of a character, with realistic reactions, and it was too much.
To compensate, Lloyd oversold the clowning, to the point where every other motion leads to a pratfall or a crash. This makes it much harder to root for sound Lloyd than it was for silent Hal.
Lloyd also directed the film, uncredited, and shows some characteristic visual flair setting up shots. As long as he focuses on Cummings, he holds my attention. But it's not really a case of the actress upstaging the star; it's more like nature abhorring a vacuum. By the way, a vacuum is the one gag prop that doesn't show up here.
Live Long And Pander
The needs of the franchise outweigh the needs of the movie. It's certainly logical. I just wish the movie left me more to think about.
Shortly after the battle that resolved "Star Trek II," we join a largely vacated U. S. S. Enterprise heading home. Still mourning his friend and comrade Mr. Spock, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) discovers Spock's sealed-off cabin occupied by "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley), himself occupied by Spock's "katra," or spirit.
"Climb the steps of Mount Seleya," a tranced-out McCoy tells Kirk, kicking off a new journey for the Enterprise.
No doubt the "Star Trek" production team, buoyed by the great success of their prior film but now stuck with a gaping, pointy- eared hole, saw its repair as job one. Bringing Spock back to life thus becomes the focus of the film, and the only thing that it gets right.
A series of decent if lully setpieces that awkwardly cohere into a larger story, "Star Trek III" feels stuck in orbit from first to last. The funeral tone of mourning Spock, established in the opening moments, hangs over the rest of the film. Kirk broods about the "emptiness" he feels, about abandoning "the noblest part of myself" and "our dearest blood."
Having spent decades unsuccessfully separating himself from his best-remembered part, director Leonard Nimoy could have told his old comrades it was no use. You don't just say goodbye to Spock and expect him to stay dead. Nimoy lets his film linger over the loss of our favorite Vulcan, at the expense of the tension and suspense that animated "Star Trek II."
What Nimoy does do well is engage the other actors, at least the ones he worked with in the original series. Kelley is delightful as the keeper of the katra, struggling to reconcile his new persona as a logical Vulcan while retaining Bones' short temper. "It's his revenge for all those arguments he lost," McCoy fumes when Kirk explains what has happened to him.
What did happen, anyway? The introduction of a mystical element to the Vulcan story, that Spock has what Kirk calls "an immortal soul," is at odds with "Star Trek's" materialistic approach to life, especially as it culminates in a religious ceremony conducted in English with a lot of "thou" and "thee." I can't say I bought it, but then again, it wasn't like I felt expected to. It's something to justify the reason we are here, getting Spock back.
The rest of the film punctuates this by giving us little else to watch. There's some business about renegade Klingons trying to steal the secret of the prior film's Genesis project from the Federation, but the action here is strictly by the numbers. Christopher Lloyd spits every line as the head Klingon, pushing to dominate every scene he's in. Long sections of narrative deal with the collapse of the Genesis planet and its impact on a young Vulcan who may be Spock, a plot device which is neither believable nor compelling.
What "Star Trek III" needed was something to pull us from the Spock story, a crisis/adventure to engage us long enough for Spock's return to take us by surprise, the same way his demise did in "Star Trek II." Unfortunately, "Star Trek III" doesn't find that hook, and the film becomes a minor slog with some funny character-driven moments, pleasant for fans but eminently forgettable.
The Shadow of the Eagle (1932)
Eagle Never Gets Off Ground
It's unfair to review a 1930s serial by today's entertainment standards; expectations were different and the formula is an alien one. That caveat out of the way, man, does "The Shadow Of The Eagle" stink.
Craig McCoy (John Wayne) is a stunt pilot at a struggling carnival who gets $100 for a skywriting job just when carnival owner Nathan Gregory (Edward Hearn) finds himself $97 short of paying off a debt collector. McCoy is happy to keep his boss in business, but both soon find themselves under suspicion when McCoy's skywriting turns out to be a threat to a group of factory owners who used Gregory's stolen invention to build a fortune.
"You stand in the shadow of the Eagle," a voice in the darkness tells the owners shortly before one of them turns up dead.
Seeing Wayne star in a serial gives you a chance to see the future star work his on-screen charisma in its fledgling form. Unfortunately there's not much to see here; not from Wayne, who does little more than work his smile between stunts; not from the film, which hits you with a succession of half-baked cliffhangers.
I know I can't really complain about logic gaps, character inconsistencies, and tone shifts in a film designed to entertain eight-year-olds in an era long before Nintendo or "Game Of Thrones." But if the film is going to throw so much nonsense up in the air, the least it could do is make it move. "Shadow Of The Eagle" features long sections of wooden dialogue and endless cycles of captures and recaptures.
A lot of the film is spent with various characters watching the Eagle's skywriting, as slow as skywriting tends to be.
"Why...it's a question mark!"
"Why...it means that Clark's been wiped out, and they're asking who's next!"
Adding to the underbaked effect is the way director Ford Beebe cheats the cliffhangers between chapter. One chapter ends with a car blowing up, only to begin the next chapter by having it explained as a tire blowout.
Wayne has a nice moment early on when he is confronted by an aggressive questioner ("I'll do the questioning..." "Well, you'll do your own answering, too.") There's also that stunt classicsoncall mentioned in another review, the plane buzzing McCoy as he runs across a field like Cary Grant. But such moments are thin on the ground and get thinner as the serial moves along and various supporting characters pop up and drop off without explanation.
"Shadow Of The Eagle" bears the marks of a project being made up as it went along by a no-budget studio. Unfortunately, while inspiration is free, talent is not. The result of working around that reality is terribly obvious with more than three hours to fill.
Murder She Said (1961)
Choking With Charm
Oh, the sights one can see on a train. Like a woman being strangled to death, or one of mystery fiction's darkest talents being reinterpreted as a light comedienne. Such is the experience you get taking a seat next to Margaret Rutherford on "Murder She Said."
Rutherford plays Miss Jane Marple in what was the first-ever cinematic presentation of Agatha Christie's famous detective. While aboard a train, Marple spies a woman in another train being throttled, the killer's face hidden from view. Ashen, Marple calls police, only to be told she probably just witnessed a couple on a honeymoon.
"I may be what is termed a spinster, but I do know the difference between horseplay and murder!" Miss Marple exclaims.
With that, she decides to investigate the case herself, taking a post as maid at a manor house nearest to where she suspects the body was dropped from the train.
It's a very different Miss Marple from Christie's version, but that's easy to understand with the demands of cinema, and easy to forgive when the results are as fine as you get here. Rutherford is in high form, playing up her character's indignation at being taken for a "dotty old maid." The manor house turns out to be alive with equal parts amusement and suspicion, presided over by Luther Ackenthorpe (James Robertson Justice), who enjoys the fact he makes his adult offspring miserable just by staying alive and denying them his inheritance.
No one can believe Marple wants to work for Ackenthorpe, least of all those who already do. "You look old enough to know better," fumes a maid played by Joan Hickson, who went on to famously play Marple herself.
Director George Pollock and his writing team do a fine job reinventing a typically dark Marple mystery into something more jovial. In fact, you can say there are moments they undersell the mystery this way. We don't even meet the full range of suspects until the movie's half over, which leaves little time for suspicion to marinate. But the mystery is a good one, not easy to figure out but making sense when it's all over.
The only outright annoyance for me is the same so many others here point to, that kid Alexander. He's played with annoying smugness, and poorly dubbed by what sounds like a 40-year-old woman doing a Freddie Bartholomew impersonation. Every time he comes on screen, I cringe.
But everything else in this film is a treat, including another character others here consider supercargo, Marple's boyfriend Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis, Rutherford's real-life husband). As Marple must take a more active role in the movie than she does in her books, the doughty Stringer serves as a kind of comedic superego to her brave id.
"Miss Marple, whatever it is, no, no, no!" he cries.
Give this a chance, and you'll be saying the opposite: Miss Marple, yes, yes, yes! Even if she wasn't Dame Agatha's cuppa, movie Marple brings home the entertainment and leaves you wanting more...which Rutherford and Pollock would deliver in short order.
Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Giving A Monkey An Even Break
"Mighty Joe Young" became known over time as the kid-friendly version of "King Kong." Ever wonder about that?
In "Mighty Joe Young," we watch a young girl steal jewels, money, even a big flashlight, all to swap for a gorilla she knows full well she shouldn't own: "He's better than a doll. I can play with him." Daddy not only countenances this misbehavior; he lets her keep the gorilla.
What kind of lesson is that for impressionable youngsters? At least in "King Kong," bad actions have consequences. Take a trip to Skull Island, you risk getting crushed in a giant maw. In "Mighty Joe Young," everything's fun until someone gets hurt, which never happens anyway.
Reuniting several "Kong" talents, including director Ernest B. Schoedsack, screenwriter Ruth Rose, effects artist Willis O'Brien, and producer Merian C. Cooper, "Mighty Joe Young" seems a conscious attempt at giving a gorilla an even break. The title character, while ferocious, is a gentle giant with a soft spot for bananas and a deep affection for little girl Jill Young, now grown into teenager Terry Moore, who stole Joe's heart as well as that flashlight.
"Joe wouldn't hurt anybody," she tells cowboy Gregg (Ben Johnson). "He wouldn't if you treat him right."
The problem of the film is hardly anyone ever does, including Jill. She allows smooth operator Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong, another "Kong" carryover) to use the towering beast to achieve Hollywood fame, as feature attraction at a tacky nightclub.
This is all mostly played for laughs, though these don't get in the way of the impressive special effects, designed by O'Brien and achieved by someone who, like Johnson, had an Oscar in his future, Ray Harryhausen.
The effects stick out most, in ways that impress even CGI-jaded eyes. The miniature work and stop-motion animation come together most impressively. Attention is paid to Joe's face and eyes, to the point where he becomes a dynamic character and a font for some engaging humor.
The story is pretty minimal, as is the acting. Johnson in particular seems pretty wooden in his first role. There are scenes that make little sense, beginning with an opening that shows a river crossing for no reason. There are long stretches of listless story action waiting for Joe's next appearance, and some odd set pieces like O'Hara's big stage show, which is a "Trader Horn" meets Busby Berkeley bit that runs too long.
What "Joe" has, in abundance, is charm. O'Hara is a con man, but also shows himself a "square guy" in the end. Even the cop who wants to hurry up and shoot Joe because he's got a date is played for laughs rather than anything darker.
Moore notes in a DVD commentary how much comment she gets about one scene of Joe lifting her character while she plays their song ("Beautiful Dreamer"). It is not only striking for the way Joe seems to soak up the attention from the audience as he shares the spotlight with his beloved, his eyes taking everything in, but of course the way it subconsciously hearkens back to another scene we all remember, of a giant ape lifting a woman up high enough for all Manhattan to see.
The trick this time is the ending, though not without punch, aims for happier results. Except at the box office, "Joe" certainly got those. He even won an Oscar, something big brother Kong didn't manage until 1977! So here's to keeping it short and sweet, relatively speaking.
Shi mian mai fu (2004)
Losing The Plot
"House Of Flying Daggers" starts out a marvelously visual experience but eventually suffers from being too driven in its desire to offer same. Taken as an adventure, a character study amid civil war, or as a love story, it was a letdown, albeit a highly sumptuous one.
In 859 AD, China is riven by a longstanding struggle between a collapsing dynasty and an insurgency which has the support of the people, the House of Flying Daggers. After one apparent high-ranking member of this group is revealed as a blind dancer in a Feng Tian brothel, two captains agree on a plan to get her to take them to the Flying Daggers' mysterious leader. In time, we learn more than one game is being played.
"Don't turn a game into reality and spoil our plan," the senior captain, Leo (Andy Lau) warns his partner Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro).
But Jin styles himself too much a lady killer and can't help himself, especially when the lady is the gorgeous and deadly Mei (Zhang Ziyi): "If I die under a skirt, I can still flirt as a ghost."
The film sets up an epic confrontation between the government and the Flying Daggers, to which Jin and Mei will discover themselves just "pawns on a chessboard." Yet the only chessboard we see used is that of director and co-screenwriter Zhang Yimou, who employs his trio of charismatic actors in the foreground of gorgeous scenery and head-spinning stuntwork.
In his DVD commentary with Ziyi, Yimou acknowledges the influence of the earlier wuxia classic "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (which featured Ziyi) as well as Sergio Leone's epic "The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly." You see the latter influence show up especially at the end. But those films, for all their rich visual textures, had stories going for them, too.
This time the story amounts to frequent repetitions of similar activities, such as government ambushes, or else spectacles that grow less focused and more obtrusive as the movie goes on. The point of the movie, we are led to believe, is this big battle "that will decide the fate of the Flying Daggers," yet we end up knowing no more about that than when we began.
I can watch Ziyi feed squirrels for two hours and not complain. She has an especially stirring opening sequence playing something called "the echo game" which works as a setpiece not only because of its fantastic visual design but also because at that point in the movie, the plot is only getting started and Yimou's tendency to bask in visuals is not yet a deficit. It's a classic setpiece.
The other main actors are also good company. Kaneshiro especially takes the seemingly thankless role of a playboy officer and turns it into the film's central role. To the extent I came to care for anyone, it is Jin, more even than Mei. Kaneshiro with both his devil-may-care attitude and deeper sensibilities draws you into this fantastic setting, enough that the first half of the film with its endless stunts and color schemes takes on elements of a quality joyride.
Eventually, the story bogs down around numerous hidden identities. Artifice, ever-present, takes over. By the time I was watching an ambush in a bamboo forest conducted largely 20 feet off the ground, I no longer felt engaged but rather manipulated. And it gets even more protracted in a long and sloppy ending.
As a cinematic experience, "House Of Flying Daggers" merits viewing. I just felt as little as I found myself caring about the way it ended, Yimou cared even less.
Un flic (1972)
Rhapsody In Blue
Can a soufflé still taste good, even a trifle underbaked and missing an ingredient or two? The answer depends on the cook.
Late one rainy afternoon, four men rob a bank in the French coastal town of St.-Jean-de-Monts, not without deadly complications. The lead crook, Simon (Richard Crenna), leads a double life as the owner of a French nightclub. One of his regulars is a quiet police inspector named Coleman (Alain Delon). In time, their lines of work will shake their friendship like nothing else, not even Coleman's affair with Simon's wife, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve).
"Un flic" (A Cop), also known as "Dirty Money," is a film about the dehumanizing nature of police work. Coleman is suave but conflicted, willing to slap around a suspect or even a suspected suspect but not so hardened as not to be conflicted about that.
"This job makes us skeptical," his deputy Morand (Paul Crauchet) notes as the pair leave a morgue.
"Especially about skepticism," Coleman replies.
Director Jean-Pierre Melville was a leading light of the New Wave movement, and his commitment to impressionistic pure cinema is on strong display right at the outset. We open on the sound of crashing waves, filling the screen with blue. The car with Simon and the other robbers moves slowly into position. With rain crashing around them on an empty street, three of the four men wordlessly get out in turn to take their positions in the bank.
A short but portentous scene is played out through their eyes. Simon's are committed but apprehensive. The old pro who joins him first, Marc Albouis (André Pousse), reads cool and empty. In the car, a former bank manager named Paul (Ricardo Cucciolla) hesitates while the driver, Louis (Michael Conrad) looks at him hard. You can see the fear in Paul's eyes as he reluctantly leaves the vehicle to play his part.
What is up with this scene? It features four French robbers, only one of whom is actually played by a Frenchman. Here, and in many other ways, Melville was clearly doing things his way, establishing meticulous realism in some scenes only to abandon it in others, most notably in a later train heist which features some fine suspense work but was clearly filmed with models.
The weakest element for me in this movie is not the Tyco episode itself, but how it is integrated into the rest of the film. We have little idea how the train heist is being done, or why it leads to the final act the way it does. Yet its aftermath proves central to everything, by which time Melville is giving us not riddles but koans.
Though employing real locations and real-time sequences, Melville doesn't seem nearly as interested in telling a solid crime story, with motives and meanings laid out. His film, like the dialogue sprinkled through it, remains elliptical all the way through.
"We're doomed victims, the prey of actual pros," is something a blackmailed homosexual tells Coleman, which serves as a kind of motif for the film. I don't think "Un flic" sells the idea as well as it thinks. If Coleman is a victim, it's of his own hard code.
But "Un flic" keeps you watching and makes you think. And while casting an American as the lead crook and another as his key partner seems a strange conceit, dubbed as they necessarily are, both Crenna and Conrad make it work, playing their parts with the same elegant drabness that underscores every scene. Crenna's Simon is one character you come to care about, if only a little. Delon may be a trifle too mopey, but makes for an enigmatic center.
As a crime story, it's pretty decent. As a cinematic tone poem, it's much better.
Paradise Canyon (1935)
Bidding A Dreary Farewell To Lone Star
John Wayne grew as a screen performer during his days starring at the cheapo production company Lone Star. It's a shame the last film he made there turned out one of the worst.
Government agent John Wyatt (Wayne) is sent on a mission to find a pair of suspected counterfeiters. One, Doc Carter (Earle Hodgins) runs a travelling medicine show selling gussied-up hard liquor as a "Famous Indian Remedy." The other, Curly Joe Gale (Yakima Canutt), is hiding out in Mexico, where he runs his illegal trade. The government suspects the two may still be in cahoots.
"Well, that's a new one for me," Wyatt tells his boss. "Looks like I'm going to have to join a medicine show."
It's the one new wrinkle on what by now had become the Wayne formula at Lone Star. Once again he has a secret identity, once again he will meet a charming girl to bond with (Marion Burns as Doc's daughter Linda) and once again he will butt heads with Canutt when the crook crosses paths with his less crooked partner Doc and decides to get him out of the way for good.
Director Carl L. Pierson may not be Wayne's regular helmer at Lone Star, Robert N. Bradbury, but he employs the same kind of flat storytelling devices and obvious padding. The film begins with Wyatt riding up to a town and discovering Doc Carter just rolled out under a cloud of community suspicion. The routine is repeated twice more before Wyatt finally links up with Doc and joins the show.
An assortment of time-killing devices follow, including a lengthy section where Doc delivers his spiel, introduces a pair of guitar- playing singers who perform a couple of songs, then turns things over to his new attraction, "Cowboy John," who shoots targets around Linda. This amounts to a successful courting ritual for Wyatt, leaving us to wonder what kind of father lets a stranger fire bullets an inch from his daughter's head.
A drunk one, I guess. Much of the humor involves how Doc Carter is his own best customer. In between pulls from the bottle, his tedious spiels suck away whatever passes for energy. As John W Chance points out in another review here, you get the feeling Pierson thought Hodgins was going to be in pictures long after the world forgot about this Wayne guy.
There's also Canutt as the bad guy, a legendary stuntman who was no actor. The film has him try to bribe Wyatt to make Doc leave town, then resort to lame threats when Wyatt refuses.
"Alright, stranger, then I'll deal from the bottom of the deck," Curly Joe replies in his flat, wheedling voice. "You and that show be out of town tonight, or I'll be there looking for you." Eventually the criminal mastermind settles on having his henchmen take Doc and Linda to a cave where he can laugh and wait for Wyatt to show up before shooting them.
There's also a number of needlessly cruel horse falls that punctuate long chase scenes. All of this is by-the-numbers Lone Star time kill, and hopefully fed some hungry dogs better than it does our need for excitement.
The most disappointing thing about this film is Wayne himself. While he managed to show some real talent in his Lone Star work, here he's very clearly going through the motions and watching the clock. With such a dull supporting cast and a lame story, you can't blame him. Maybe he was thrown playing love scenes with an actress who had the same first name he did.
Wayne's Lone Star films have some good moments, and at least one film worth recommending on its own merits, "Sagebrush Trail." Unfortunately, this one only shows why they called it "Poverty Row."
The Mendacity Of Success
Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman inhabit the singular character that was Truman Capote is a triumph of art, even if like with a lot of Hoffman, I find an underlying pain tends to dominate.
"Capote" puts us in the Clutter household in Holcomb, Kansas, early one November morning in 1959. The family has been murdered for no clear reason, frightening the community. In New York City, the celebrated fiction writer Truman Capote reads of the crime and decides he must go there, in search of something he doesn't understand. This will eventually both produce his masterpiece and ruin him, not necessarily in that order.
"It's the book I was always meant to write," he tells high-society friends between languid puffs of his cigarette. "What have you been up to?"
"Capote" the film may oversell the idea that the strain and emotional toll it took Capote to write "In Cold Blood" caused him to descend into an alcoholic nullity. But Hoffman's finely-tuned performance does deliver. His voice and manner accurately summon the famous talk-show guest I remember. His eyes alternately suggest aloofness and pain, which is what makes for Capote's tragedy.
It seems that Capote is a wonderful one for empathy as something to pull out of his writer's tool box, using it to form a bond with a leery investigator, Alvin Dewey, Jr. (Chris Cooper). But he has more trouble with empathy from the heart, which comes across especially when he meets one of the accused murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.).
Smith and Capote immediately bond, as both are outsiders. But whereas Smith sees a friend, Capote sees a "gold mine," and one in need of mining before the state executioner steps in. Most of what director Bennett Miller and scripter Dan Futterman focus on in the second half is how much of this amounts to a devil's bargain, given the games Capote plays. Capote's lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) and his childhood pal and researcher, Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) provide the moral conscience from the sidelines.
I found them to be wet blankets, especially Greenwood, who seems to be directed to communicate seething ambidirectional jealousy in every scene. For all the gambits and head games Capote played, he was also working on a story that would present Smith and his accomplice, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), in as decent a light as two wanton killers ever got.
It feels at times like "Capote" overeggs the morality lesson, and its sepulchral pace adds to the weight. But the visual tone is keenly done, especially Adam Kimmel's serene shots of Manitoba doubling for Kansas. Hoffman's Oscar win is well-earned, as he centers a number of powerful scenes showcasing his character at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, schmoozing with the cognoscenti and trying to compose himself for a final farewell with Smith and Hickock.
Did Capote really go completely silent in print after "In Cold Blood" as the movie has it? Not if you count his 1980 best-selling collection, "Music For Chameleons." But Futterman's script tells a tale that resonates with the compromises writers make in practicing their craft, and Hoffman's searing humanity carries overtones of classical tragedy.
"It's the hardest when someone has a notion about you and it's impossible to convince them otherwise," he tells a Clutter friend by way of inveigling some useful information on the family. I have a feeling if Capote was still alive, he'd want use of that same line for Miller and Futterman.
Whether it's fact or fiction, "Capote" the film makes a riveting case study. I think Capote, who made a career out of obscuring the two forms, would have appreciated it.