2019 AFI Fest
Directed by Alan J. Pakula, Klute (1971) is a psychological thriller that stars Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. Screened as part of AFI Fest’s Pakula retrospective, it was the first of the director’s “paranoid trilogy” including The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976).
The story begins with a missing person case. Pennsylvania research engineer Tom Gruneman has disappeared. An opening sequence shows him at a party with family and friends. Everyone is smiling and happy, toasting each other. Flashing forward to the present at the same location, a detective is questioning some of the party guests including Tom’s wife Holly (Betty Murray), his best friend, police officer John Klute (Donald Sutherland) and his boss, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi). The detective asks Tina if her husband had “any moral or sexual problems or peculiarities?”
“We were very happy,” she replies.
The detective isn’t asking these intrusive questions just to be provocative. He says that they’ve found letters in Tom’s desk addressed to “a girl in New York city … she said she had received six or seven letters of this kind … it’s an obscene letter Mrs. Gruneman, I’d like you to remember it was written by a very disturbed man … a man will lead a double life, a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence and the wife will have no idea what was going on.”
After that cryptic introductory scene, the opening credits roll with a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing a woman’s seductive voice, unmistakeably that of Jane Fonda. This sequence brings to mind Pakula’s other paranoid thrillers and Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Jarring, discordant music plays on the soundtrack. We’ve been warned: This won’t be a comfortable viewing experience. Six months pass and another detective (Nathan George) has taken over the case. Working with NYPD, he’s learned that the woman Tom wrote to is a call girl. Officer Klute is assigned to the case even though he lacks experience. He shows up in the city and stakes out her apartment. Her name is Brie Daniels. We’re introduced to aspiring actress Brie (Jane Fonda) at a cattle call for a commercial.
Fonda gives a hard-edged performance with some of the weariness she showed in They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1969). We see her in action, turning tricks. Buttering up her customers, Brie engages in a type of “acting.” Earlier, NYPD put the squeeze on, hoping to get information about the Gruneman case. She pleads ignorance but admits to having had a rough trick who could’ve been Tom Gruneman. By contrast, Sutherland’s titular Klute is low key, robotic in speech and laser-focused on the mission of finding his friend.
In Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo Noir, Foster Hirsch writes:
Sutherland performs with a fixed, opaque expression that occasionally breaks to reveal the character’s simmering sexuality. Despite the fact that the film is named for him, Klute isn’t the central figure … Bree becomes the focus, and her her role as the object of desire for repressed suburbanites are far more compelling than solving the crime.
Hirsch and others have commented on how Klute offers a “fresh twist” on noir’s femme fatale because “it depicts the way a woman views her own sexual allure.”
The mask of the fatal woman, the woman whose sexuality is deadly to the men who desire and are entrapped by her is pierced to reveal her own awareness of how and why she exploits her looks … Alternating with the shots of Bree unmasked are the countershots in which she becomes the focus of the camera’s or a character’s voyeuristic gaze. When she goes on modeling auditions, prospective employers evaluate her like a consumable, disposable item. And in a recurrent point-of-view shot, Bree is spied on by an unidentified stalker whose obsessive watching radiates a fetishistic and criminal aura … In a daring move, the film equates the voyeur’s murderous gaze with the “look” of the camera itself. The stalker has a tape, which he compulsively replays, of Bree speaking on the phone; like her image and her body, Brie’s voice has been appropriated, “stolen” from its owner.
Brie eventually becomes Klute’s de facto co-investigator. She has as much at stake as he does and she knows the players in the city’s club scene and sexual underground. Roy Scheider, Rosalind Cash and Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers ) show up as former friends and associates who might be in the know.
Famed cinematographer Gordon Willis was a frequent collaborator with Pakula and shot all of his paranoid political films. He earned the nickname “the prince of darkness” for his distinctive use of light and shadow. Exteriors were filmed in Manhattan as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were under construction.
Introducing Klute on TCM, host Ben Mankiewicz said Willis “takes advantage of shooting in the city when the rot of the big apple was starting to show … Fonda’s character is often surrounded by darkness, carefully framed in a way that makes her look like she’s boxed in and alone. Willis became known for his use of negative space combining shot composition, focus and careful lighting to help the viewer zero in on what was important in a scene.”