All right, class, teacher has had a bad night and is well grumpy, so please pay attention and open your back issue of the New York Times (16 November 1959) to the following passage:


Holcomb, Kansas … A wealthy wheat farmer, his

wife and their two young children were found shot

to death today in their home. They had been killed

by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound

and gagged.

The father, 48-year-old Herbert W Clutter, was found

in the basement with his son, Kenyon, 15. His wife

Bonnie, 45, and a daughter, Nancy, 16, were in their

beds. There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing

had been stolen.

And there you have what should have been the shocking true story of Capote, not that you’d know it from the much touted biopic starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the late, helium-voiced author. As usual on these occasions (see Terrence Malick’s 1973 Badlands and 1982’s The Executioner’s Song, not to mention the various Manson-murder sagas), we’re asked upfront to identify with the poor, mixed-up assassins – in this case, two drifters named Perry Smith and Dick Hickock – rather than their prey. Capote is peopled by the stick figures of fun – flatfoot Midwestern cops and dour, Bible-thumping farmers who look on the foppish, Julian Clary-gay scribe in their midst much like a visitor from Mars. When the two murderers are caught, Truman Capote jets home to Manhattan and writes his ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood, which becomes the ‘in’ title of the New York publishing season as well as a passable 1967 film starring – of all people – Robert Blake. If there are any ethical ambiguities suggested by the above, you won’t immediately find them in Capote, whose unabashed heroes are 1) the eponymous author and 2) the psycho killers, on one or both of whom he seems to have had a giant crush, with the Clutter family a distant third.

By rights, Capote should be virtually unwatchable. It suffers from yawning gaps of logic and some satirically duff dialogue. The whole appeal of these sorts of films is one step up from voyeurism. But Hoffman, it has to be said, gives a riveting impersonation of someone who may or may not have been aware of the Faustian pact he struck with In Cold Blood. (Addicted to pills and drink, Capote never wrote anything of value again; he died in 1984, aged 59.) There’s a nice supporting role by To Kill A Mockingbird novelist Harper Lee, played here by Catherine Keener, and one or two winning cameos. The period detail is flawless. But this is Hoffman’s movie all the way, and a testament to his character-acting skills that a self-styled ‘vodka-swilling dwarf’ on the make for a story ultimately comes across as halfway sympathetic, if not exactly attractive.

Capote has some vivid and genuinely disturbing scenes. It tells you something of the pitfalls of fame, American style. It’s dark and atmospheric and intelligent, but it hasn’t much heart – and no soul.