❉ Johnny Restall examines Alan Pakula’s classic thriller’s unusual approach, its sexual politics, and its place in ’70s paranoid and neo-noir cinema.
“Like Francis Ford Coppola’s later, similarly surveillance-themed The Conversation (1974), Klute uses its thriller framework as a means to study character, reversing the more traditional Hitchcockian approach of using characters as pawns to advance the plot.”
A thriller with no gunfights or car chases, and almost no onscreen violence. A whodunnit that casually reveals its murderer barely a third of the way through. A tale of traditional rural values meeting urban realities, which absolutely refuses to accept simplistic moral conclusions. A title character who never really becomes the film’s lead.
Director Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, which turns 50 in June this year, began life as a relatively conventional genre piece, penned by TV screenwriting veterans Andy and Dave Lewis. It tells the story of small-town policeman John Klute (Donald Sutherland), who travels to New York to investigate the disappearance of his best friend. His only clue is an obscene letter the missing man apparently wrote to an enigmatic prostitute named Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Yet thanks to Pakula’s ruthless paring down of the original script, and phenomenal work from the cast and crew, the film confounds almost every anticipated cliché to become a fascinating, terrifying, and rewardingly complex experience.
Like Francis Ford Coppola’s later, similarly surveillance-themed The Conversation (1974), Klute uses its thriller framework as a means to study character, reversing the more traditional Hitchcockian approach of using characters as pawns to advance the plot.
This is neatly encapsulated by the opening credits. An unseen listener plays a tape recording of a prostitute whom we later identify as Bree, as she unapologetically discusses a transaction with a client, and outlines a certain philosophy: “I think the only way any of us can be happy is to let it all hang out… Do it all and fuck it.” The sequence sets the film’s pervasive atmosphere of invaded privacy and paranoia. It also creates a sense of disorientating disembodiment – aside from the machine, we see only the male listener’s hands, and hear only the woman’s voice, out of context, divorced from her visual image. The use of audio creates a certain psychological intimacy with the female voice, while unambiguously reminding us that we are literally not getting the full picture of this woman, a dichotomy that the film is determined to overturn. While the presence of the listener also establishes the notion of ambiguous and quite possibly predatory male surveillance, the use of sound alone avoids the sleazier visual possibilities inherent in the scene. The film is not coy, but it never exploits the integrity of its characters.
Klute’s main character is Bree, with the titular detective playing the kind of supporting role more frequently assigned to the female lead in mainstream cinema. Thanks to Fonda’s remarkable performance and Pakula’s sensitive, intelligent direction, the film stands as a landmark in the representation of female characters on screen, in stark contrast to the focus on male experience in most contemporary ‘New Hollywood’ classics (with notable exceptions such as Martin Scorsese’s 1974 Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore).
Following her voice-only introduction, we next meet Bree at a casting call for a modelling project, sat in the midst of a long line of women, all being judged solely on their visual appeal. The participants in this cold, impersonal parade have no opportunity to speak for themselves as their looks are bluntly dissected and dismissed. Bree is disqualified for apparently having “funny hands”, and the entire selection are eventually graded with a C Minus, to be brusquely ushered out as another silent group of hopeful women replace them.
As Bree explains in one of the psychotherapy sessions patterned throughout the film, her sex work contrasts totally with her powerlessness in these casting calls. It gives her control, and lets her perform on her own terms – right down to surreptitiously glancing at her watch as she fakes orgasms. In this limited way, she gets to reverse the balance of power; her clients are “usually nervous, which is fine, because I’m not.” This detachment is essential for her survival, but comes at an emotional and physical cost. It seems no coincidence that her apartment is situated next to a funeral home. The location reflects not just the predatory, dangerous world she lives in, but also the idea that as a woman she is prevented from truly being ‘alive’ by the society around her.
A certain prickly tenderness is exposed as Bree and Klute form a tentative attachment. However, she never gives up her independence or passively lets the ‘hero’ make her choices for her. She is intelligent and self-aware, knowing the limits of her situation but determined to act only on her own terms. At every turn, the film declines the cliches expected for her character – she is neither a victim, a ‘tart-with-a-heart’ or a scheming temptress. It remains true to her character right through to the realistically ambiguous conclusion, resisting any simple happy endings.
With Bree taking centre stage, Klute’s role becomes watchful and reactive. Thanks to the casting of Sutherland, with his natural off-beat quality, the detective remains quietly intriguing despite his reduced part, never played as either the dull square-jawed hero or the priggish crusader he could have become in lesser hands. He seems to be almost holding his breath in his encounters with Bree, as though trying to coax something injured and delicate out from both of them.
Klute’s more benevolent interest in Bree is deliberately paralleled by the killer’s destructive, misogynist obsession with her. Following a conversation between Klute and the murderer, the detective is reflected over the killer’s image as he watches him through a window as he leaves, as though they are two sides of the same coin. In a sense, both men stalk Bree and seek to confine her; it is simply that their ultimate goals are different. They are explicitly linked by their use of secret audio recordings, but while Klute turns his over to Bree (though only after she assists his investigation), the killer hoards them, stealing the voices of his victims, and ultimately using them as a horrifying psychological weapon during the harrowing climax.
Despite its unusual structure, Klute remains suffused with compelling suspense, greatly enhanced by Gordon Willis’ stunning cinematography. Nicknamed ‘The Prince Of Darkness’, Willis was renowned for his striking use of low lighting, and Klute may just be his finest achievement. He tracks the actors through subterranean shadows, as though the city were a canyon and the apartments caves. Fonda in particular is shot in claustrophobic compositions, constantly blocked by dark shapes invading the frame. Unexpected angles heighten the mood, rendering several otherwise innocuous shots inexplicably frightening, due to the camera’s uncanny viewpoint. Michael Small’s elegant, understated music crystallises the film’s atmosphere, moving between sparse, eerie vocals (occasionally echoing Ennio Morricone’s Giallo scores), and melancholy jazz, wrapping itself tenderly around the fragile union between Klute and Bree.
A stellar supporting cast surrounds the superb leads, with Roy Schneider oozing malevolence, and a deeply unsettling Charles Cioffi. The continuing relevance of its distressing themes ensure that Klute still has much to say after 50 years, while its rich characterisations, careful direction, and brilliantly judged photography, sound, and design, mean that it not only withstands but demands repeat viewings.
❉ A newly restored 4K digital transfer of ‘Klute’ (1971) was released on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection on 19th August 2019. BBFC Cert 15. Running time: 114 min. RRP £17.99.