Mr. Klein is one of Joseph Losey’s very best films, and was made at a point in his career where he had practically been written off. The film, however, started out as a Costa-Gavras project—and as good as Mr. Klein is (and it’s very good), he does seem to be the director more suited to this Kafkaesque political drama. Both directors were lefties, but couldn’t be more different I terms of aesthetics. Losey made noirs when he was in the States, before he left during the Red Scare of the early ‘50s. After that, he made a string of British and European films that were highly acclaimed, like The Servant and The Go-Between, plus bizarro Elizabeth Taylor vehicles like the infamous Boom! and Secret Ceremony. He even made one of the very best Hammer films, the apocalyptic sci-fi feature The Damned. He is a pioneer in what John Waters likes to call “failed art films,” but Losey did make some genuinely great films as well.
Alain Delon delivers one of his finest performances as Robert Klein, an art dealer who is buying up the art that French Jews are trying to sell after the Nazis have invaded Paris, to raise cash so they can flee the country. He is apparently “neutral,” but clearly sees the Jews as “the other” and views their turmoil as a money-making opportunity that he can’t pass up. However, there is another Robert Klein, and Delon’s Klein soon starts receiving his local Jewish newspaper and other mail. Is it some plot by the other Mr. Klein to set him up? Delon’s Klein attempts to investigate, but soon finds himself in a nightmare where he must prove he isn’t the Jewish Mr. Klein to the occupying Nazis.
The film is brilliant at portraying the absolutely banal bureaucracy of evil and how you can’t escape it. Everything is already in motion, and it’s just pure dumb luck if you escape. The film never wraps up its central mysteries, from who is the other Mr. Klein to the possibility that Delon’s Klein may actually have Jewish ancestry that he didn’t know about.
Delon also perfectly portrays this selfish piece of shit who deserves everything that comes his way. It caps off his brilliant run during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and casting Delon right at the point where he was aging as this sociopath was a brilliant choice. Jeanne Moreau and Juliet Berto have bit parts, and to some extent are wasted—but it’s so much Delon’s film that you give it a pass. If anything, the film is probably too clever for its own good, and for large chunks of the action it feels a little too detached. However, the final scene will stay with you for a very long time to come.
Thanks to StudioCanal, Mr. Klein is out again with a 4K restoration on Blu-Ray. The film was hard to get for some years, with only limited streaming engagements on The Criterion Channel and Mubi (UK) in recent years (and I kept forgetting to watch it.) The Blu-Ray includes an introduction by Jean-Baptiste Thoret, fellow film critic Michel Ciment supplies an appreciation, and there is an interview with the film’s editor, Henri Lanoë.