Director: Alan J. Pakula / Screenplay: Andy & David Lewis / Editing: Carl Lerner / DP: Gordon Willis / Music: Michael Small
Cast: Jane Fonda / Donald Sutherland / Roy Scheider / Dorothy Tristan / Vivian Nathan
They Really ARE Out to Get Me…
Alan J. Pakula began his eclectic career as a producer, rising through the ranks with pictures imbued with a certain ‘sad intelligence’, such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). He then moved, tentatively, in applying his considerable talent to directing material in a similar vein. A typical Pakula film, then, offers few laughs, but insights into the dark corners of America’s tarnished soul. His second feature – klute – would begin a trilogy-of-sorts, that considered aspects of paranoia; topical for a country riven over its involvement in Vietnam; a sequence that would culminate in All The President’s Men (1976), which considered the fallout from Watergate.
Attracted to a clever, deft script from Andy & David Lewis, Pakula approached Jane Fonda as his first choice for the lead. At the time, Fonda was licking her wounds, having emerged from marriage to French director Roger Vadim and was finding her voice as a political activist; first, supporting The Black Panthers and later, campaigning against war in Vietnam. Along with her marriage, went the iconic blonde hair immortalised in Barbarella (1968). In its place came a new style christened ‘the Shag’ and a return to Fonda’s natural brown. Relax: these things turn out to be important, if not essential, for Fonda to pull-off what has turned out to be the most demanding – and rewarding – role in her long career: for this is Fonda-the-actress, playing an actress who, in-turn, is, err, acting?
Alongside Fonda in the titular role as retired cop John Klute, would be the laconic Donald Sutherland. Following hot on the heels of the crazed Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and MASH (1970), klute (the lower-case ‘k’ being deliberate) would showcase a buttoned-down Sutherland, happy to play second-fiddle to his leading lady. At times, Sutherland’s character almost melts into the scenery, so incidental is his function here.
And yet… Klute is the necessary foil for Fonda’s ‘hooker with a heart of gold’, Bree Daniels. As Bree’s character evolves over the course of the picture, we’ll see her attitude towards men – and Klute, in particular – shift by degrees.
When first we see her, Bree is an outwardly confident call-girl, meeting her ‘Johns’ in anonymous hotel rooms, where she’s all business and no-nonsense. Pakula hired a real working-girl as a consultant on the picture and it shows in these early scenes as Bree lolls over a couch with studied expectation, while her (nervous) client futzes around.
Off-the-job, Bree’s trying-out as a model and there’s a memorable scene where she’s sat amidst a row of what look to be genuine fashionistas. A faceless client is working his way down the line, assessing and dismissing with a casual diffidence and ignorance of their feelings. The girls know this for what it is: just another dehumanising roll-call. But, Pakula sees it as an outsider and is captivated by its aloofness. That’s why he shoots at a remove. Why he’s careful not to show the client’s head, thus denying us a chance to pass our own judgement. After all, we don’t need to see him looking; it’s enough to know that he is. What’s more, this is the second time that Bree has been regarded; her first John did likewise. There’s a ‘pattern of regard’ here. Of appraisal & judgement. And Bree’s not comfortable. From her top-floor apartment carved from a seedy New York brownstone, she gets the distinct impression of being watched.
So much so, that it unnerves her. She smokes a joint. Potters around in a scarlet kaftan. Reads an astrology book in bed. Can’t sleep after an anonymous call. Bree, then, is complicated. In this apartment, Bree is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with her awkward backstory that’s taken her from a Fifth Avenue apartment to a spell in jail. Now reduced to the life of a call-girl, she dwells on how the diminution of both talent & resources have conspired to lay her low.
Enter Klute. It seems that his best friend – now a successful businessman – has gone missing and the man’s wife and business colleague, Peter Cable (given nervous energy by Charles Cioffi) want Klute to investigate. Klute is armed with a telephone wire-tapping recorder, sufficient funds to rent a small apartment and one clue: Bree.
Klute gets nowhere in winning Bree’s trust until one evening when she turns-up at his door: as luck would have it, in the basement of her own building. She claims to have trouble sleeping, but the almost-inevitable seduction that she initiates, turns-out to be little more than a power-play on her part. After all, asserting control over men, seems to be her only stock-in-trade and, to Bree, Klute is as good as any other. Along the way, she’s visiting a psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan in a warm performance that reminded me of Faye Dunaway in McTiernan’s remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)). Throughout the picture, we return to the analyst’s couch for further vignettes cut-loose from Bree’s soul.
At the beginning, she sees no value for the sessions and wants to cancel, but as a bond develops with Klute – and deepens – it’s back to therapy and an opportunity for Bree (or is it Jane?) to consider how this is happening; why it is, that she’s suddenly opening her heart… Perhaps, because Klute appears every inch the self-contained man. Here is someone fearless. Proactive & focussed: the polar opposite of the men in Bree’s usual orbit with one exception: her pimp, Frank, given languid power by Roy Scheider. The master-servant dynamic as a substitute for an absent / abusive father is in full-effect here which is why, later-on, at a point when Bree’s feeling nervous, she hops-out of Klute’s car whilst in-traffic and heads to a club and Frank’s reassuring, knowing embrace. Pakula’s careful to move Klute into the scene, only at the point of observing her surrender. Again, Bree is being watched & judged by men.
There’s more of Bree’s professional life. A memorable scene by a grocery stand and brief cameos from other significant characters in her life, but the menace is always there, just out of focus. Another scene of note, shows Klute steer a bemused Bree towards her bed. In a mirror, we see her hands are wandering over his back in anticipation. Yet, at the point when he tells her, gently – but forcefully – that he’s heard someone on the roof above, her hands freeze; the mood has flipped in an instant. To add to the suspense, Pakula’s camera is on the roof, shooting down through the apartment’s large skylight. Incidentally, the apartment is actually just one large set; equipped with functional plumbing, Fonda lived in it for a brief spell, to fully inhabit Bree’s character.
Adding to the mise-en-scéne, is amazing control from DP Gordon Willis. Willis would go on to lens the Godfather trilogy for Coppola and acquire the monicker ‘The Prince of Darkness’, on account of his mastery of arid sepias and warm browns; the palette of the Seventies. A late scene in a closed garment factory, with its blend of liquid shadows and indirect, glaring industrial lighting, leaves an indelible impression. Other highlights? The scene where Bree smokes a joint, is beautifully composed, with her blaze of red kaftan at centre-frame, softly-lit from a candle, that Pakula & Willis shoot from a distance; the soft candlelight bleeding out to the edge of the frame. It’s astonishing.
Another scene, has Bree framed by thick black bars that segment Pakula’s frame into distinct chunks of image that symbolises compartmentalisation. Isolation. This particular split-screen technique was pioneered in the Sixties, as a result of the liberation afforded by true Widescreen formats, but Pakula and editor Carl Lerner are really pushing it here, for narrative effect.
A word also, for Michael Small’s score. Often atonal, its piercing electronic stabs of noise reminded me of the strings in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), both in their strident urgency as much as the delicate way they unsettled & alienated.
By the time we get to the final confrontation, Bree’s story has all but run its course. Unlike some of the characters in her life, she does at least earn some kind of ‘happy ending’, but as she and Klute leave the apartment for the last time – together – she can’t help herself and answers the ringing telephone. It’s the only remnant in her life she’s not taking with her. A link she can’t break. A lesser Director would’ve had Bree regard the ringing phone and close the door. Or cut the cable. Something symbolic at any rate, but not Pakula. He accepts that Bree is – and always has been – complicit in the mystery. Although not directly responsible for what’s happened, she’s an intrinsic cog in the machine and, by having her answer the phone, even as she’s leaving town for a new life, suggests that giving up the old one, might be the hardest trick she’ll ever have to pull-off.
Moreover, what is she doing leaving with Klute: another man? One interpretation might be that she’s had enough of the lifestyle and yearns for something approaching a ‘normal life’. In Klute, perhaps Bree sees that chance. Trouble is, what does he see in her? Her impulsive decision to answer that last phone call, might be indicative of struggles to come… It’s to the film’s credit, that it’s doing enough to even provoke such questions, right at the death.
Pakula’s film is taut. Precise. Controlled. Even viewed fifty-years on, it retains the power to startle and confound. Both Fonda & Sutherland are in this for themselves and no-one else: so who’s the voyeur now?
And for an hour… for an hour, I’m the best actress in the world, and the best fuck in the world.