Excitement for Klute ran high for me, as I’m a fan of anything with Roy Scheider and this was the film that garnered Jane Fonda an Academy Award. There are elements within Klute that resonated for audiences of the 1970s and today, coupled with a spellbinding performance by our leading lady.
John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is investigating the disappearance of a friend, leading him to New York prostitute, Bree Daniels (Fonda). Bree has her own reasons to be suspicious, as she’s been the recipient of obscene phone calls by a man stalking her.
Klute was the first of three films Pakula dubbed his “paranoia trilogy,” the other two being The Parallax View in 1974 and All the President’s Men in 1976. Klute’s characters are certainly on edge, not only from the events of the plot, but their own inner flaws. Much has been made about Jane Fonda’s sexually liberated Bree Daniels, a woman not repulsed by sex or her job. Too often movies about prostitution present women as “damaged goods,” forced into “the life” through broken homes or trauma. There’s no outward signs of either issue within Bree’s character, and in fact she sees her job much like any other (albeit with the knowledge to “get the money up front”). Paklua furthers this idea of prostitution coming in many guises when Bree goes to a modeling cattle call where the women are graded, like slabs of beef, on their looks and bodies. They’re prostitutes, albeit in a legitimized field. Later on, when Bree visits an old man, she gets the chance to tackle the modeling job she lost out on, acting for the man in a way not unlike the world of cinema itself.
Of course, sticking somewhat to pressing issues facing women pre-second wave feminism, Bree sees little enjoyment in sex itself, looking at her watch during her assignations. There isn’t the overt fear of the liberated female, second-wave feminism ignited a few years later, but Pakula shows the fear of women’s domesticity. When Bree and Klute become enmeshed in their relationship, she tells him he’s just another john (client for those unaware of prostitute speak). The audience knows Bree’s lying, but she wants to be numb to love and romance for fear of losing herself. Fonda’s toughness, exacerbated by a lack of sexual fulfillment would be repeated in a few other roles, best exemplified in Coming Home.
Pakula controls his characters with the dexterity of a puppetmaster, leaving me to appreciate them even if the plot is slow as molasses. Donald Sutherland isn’t always my favorite actor, but he’s good as the cold John Klute. Honestly, it’s hard to remember he’s the star of the movie when Fonda’s Bree is given a more emotional complexity. Much like the men Bree is with, they’re only as good as how she makes them feel, and thus the audience is captivated more by her than anyone else. Fonda brings out the best in Sutherland, especially in their dialogue sequences. “A man will lead a double life,” a true statement applicable to Klute. His original intentions are to find out where his friend/boss is, yet he’s also able to indulge desires he never knew possible. Klute is the stodgy, hypocritical prude. As he listens to Bree discuss fantasies, she realizes they’re not nearly as horrible as the ones he himself thinks of.
Roy Scheider is the only other man of merit, in the small role of Bree’s former pimp, Frank. Scheider was a chameleon, never playing the same character twice, and yet all of them breed their own type of allure (yes, even Sheriff Brody). Scheider’s Frank isn’t a man you’d want to irritate, but he doesn’t have to resort to threats. His power over Bree is psychological, a frightening proposition considering Bree thinks herself lucky that the other girls in Frank’s “employ” are a junkie and/or dead. This is a man whose women don’t last long, but you’re never truly privy to what’s going on. Pakula’s world is a closed system, with little means of escape once you’re brought in.
Several of Pakula’s tropes are on display, such as his affinity for filming with natural light, lending an evocative, haunting quality, especially in the sequences where Bree is harassed over the phone. With little more than a dull lamp over her face, Bree is closed off in her harassment, frightened and wholly alone in the darkness. Pakula also indulges his love of recording, in this case Bree’s phone calls. The emphasis on recording plays out best in All the President’s Men where its connection is politically based. With Klute, the recording is much like the cloud of today, everything can easily be copied and fall into the wrong hands.
Klute’s slow-burn approach either entices audiences looking for something with substance, or will repulse viewers yearning for instant gratification. You have to take in Klute with the right mind-set. Jane Fonda’s unrepentant performance is intoxicating. Klute ends up sticking to you for far longer than expected.
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