Klute is the first film in what was eventually dubbed as Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy, mirroring the similar trio of films that John Frankenheimer did in the ’60s. Thematically linked, but without any crossover with of characters, Pakula would follow Klute with The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. It’s also the film where Jane Fonda really came into her own as a person and an actress. It was a big hit at the time, but has fallen into obscurity, especially in the UK as there was no UK home video release till now.
Jane Fonda plays Bree Daniels, a call girl in New York City with some acting/modeling aspirations who gets involved in a missing person case. Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired as a private detective, and because of a letter connecting Bree to the missing person, he starts following her. It turns out that she has been receiving more letters, and also mysterious phone calls. They soon start a relationship, which is as much sexual as it is emotional, and Bree is hoodwinking Klute somewhat at the same time. They soon must navigate the world of pimps and calls girls, while the paranoia just oozes out of the celluloid.
The performance from Jane Fonda is probably her finest, and she got the role in an interesting time in her life. Until They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Fonda was known as a perfectly good actress, but she had basically been moulded into a kind of American Bridget Bardot throughout much of the ’60s. It’s no coincidence that she was married to Roger Vadim… Bardot’s ex-husband. However, by the time she was making Klute, her relationship with Vadim was on the rocks, and her activism was at its peak, ranging from raising money for the Black Panthers and protesting the Vietnam war, to becoming increasingly involved with the women’s movement of the ’70s. She actually wanted out of her contract, and suggested Faye Dunaway for the role. She didn’t believe she could juggle her newfound feminist beliefs with playing a call girl. However, when she sent the script to some feminist friends, they said no, you could do something with this role.
Fonda doesn’t go for the typical “hooker with a heart of gold” stereotype in her portrayal. She found her way into the role by talking to call girls and madams, and discovering that most of them had been sexually abused as children, often incestuously. She then drew on those stories for her portrayal. The character is well-rounded: she is this damaged woman who has scenes with a female therapist (deliberately female, there is no way Bree would be vulnerable with a man in that situation,) but she also completely owns her own being, and when she has does have a john, it’s a performative act. One of her most ironic and revealing lines is “I’m a nervous broad.” Her performance also has a level of “cool detachment,” which was very vogue in 1971, as in Joan Didion’s novels and essay collections that came out around the same time. Fonda also got that ironic shag haircut she would have during the ’70s right before she made the film, which was a pretty radical fashion statement at the time.
Sutherland gives one of his best performances as well. But while he is at the peak of his fame here, it’s Fonda movie—which is ironic, given that he is playing the title character! Roy Scheider plays Bree’s pimp, serving up perhaps the first film role where people took notice of him. Although he has been slumming it in episodic television for nearly two decades, to think he got Buddy Russo in The French Connection right after this… Charles Cioffi plays the villain of the piece, and the fact that he was a businessman and not really an actor at the time just adds to the banality of his menace.
Finally it’s beautifully filmed by Gordon Willis. His use of shadows and spots of light was already so profoundly formulated in Klute, that although he had shot a couple of films before, it’s like with this one film he basically invents the visual palette that ’70s cinema would endlessly try to copy, with varying results. You can see why Francis Ford Coppola hired him to shoot The Godfather and The Godfather Part II; he even did his own Klute-influenced film, The Conversation, in between. The score by Michael Small is one of the first examples of film music that melds into sound design, something Coppola would also do with Walter Murch in The Conversation.
Overall, if you haven’t seen Klute, you are in one of the defining films of the new Hollywood of the ’70s. Although Pakula was never as hip as his contemporaries, he was Robert Mulligan’s producer for years before, and his ’70s work is as good as anything by Bogdanovich, Coppola or Scorsese. He never quite reached those dizzying heights of the ’70s again, but he remained a solid director. Klute is also just a fantastic neo-noir, and perhaps the first American film of the ’70s to do something new with its revivalist take on the genre.
The Criterion release has a nice arrangement of new and archival special features. Jane Fonda is at the point of her life where she really doesn’t give a fuck anymore, and is interviewed by Illeana Douglas: it’s a great talk touching on the film, her life at the time and where it fits in her body of work, etc. Following on from the interview, there is a short featurette on Pakula, which is essentially outtakes from a forthcoming feature-length documentary on the director. Vanity Fair‘s Amy Fine Collins talks about the fashion of the film, which was mostly Fonda’s own clothes combined with other pieces. Fonda has said she often takes her costumes home after a film and wears them, they don’t gather dust in a closet. Archival TV interviews with Pakula and Fonda, along with a short making-of released at the same time of the film, round off the features on the disc itself. The booklet includes an essay by critic Mark Harris and excerpts from a 1972 interview with Pakula.