Readers' Choice Marathon: Klute (1971)

Klute, starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland

When I started this blog last March, my goal was to push myself to watch films that I’d avoided for too long. I also hoped to discover movies that had escaped my notice. I hadn’t counted on enjoying the interaction with other bloggers and film fans so much. That’s been a bonus and led me to many great movies beyond my comfort zone. With the approach in mind, I placed the call last month for recommendations for a Readers’ Choice marathon. Based on that feedback, I’ve compiled a diverse list of films that I’ll be checking out in the upcoming weeks. My first choice is Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, which stars Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. This suggestion came from Aaron Coffman, a St. Louis native who directed the excellent All Those Yesterdays. I caught up with that picture at the St. Louis International Film Festival last November, and I can definitely see why he picked this film. If you’re interested in the choices for this marathon, check out the list in the right sidebar.

What's this story about?
Small-town cop John Klute journeys to New York City to investigate the disappearance of his friend, Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli). Evidence leads him to Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a prostitute with a connection to the case. Klute explores the seedier side of the city while developing a bond with Bree. She’s struggling to get into acting or modeling but isn’t having much luck in the brutal industry. Meanwhile, an unknown figure is calling Bree frequently and might be following her. While Klute inches closer towards the truth, his investigation becomes about more than just locating his friend.

Jane Fonda in Klute

What are the major themes, and how do they connect to the key issues of that time?
Although it’s marketed like a suspense thriller, Klute is really more of a character study focusing on Bree. We follow her to sessions with her therapist, calls with customers, and awkward casting sessions. Sending a conservative guy to the city seems like the set-up for his corruption. Instead, it’s Bree who evolves through her interactions with the straight-arrow Klute. Pakula and Writers Andy and David P. Lewis have an extremely negative view of the city. Although there is an individual bad guy, the primary villain is really the city itself, which is filled with drug dealers, killers, and other creepy individuals. Pakula presents a bleak portrait of New York in the early ‘70s. Bree slinks through dark shops and ugly apartments and must leave if she’s going to survive. Klute is a dull guy, but he represents her salvation from this nasty environment.

Donald Sutherland in Klute

Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
This film's strongest attributes are the performances from Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. They create believable characters and don’t oversell the connection. It’s not clear if they’re in love or have just found something that they’ve been missing. Fonda won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actress in a role that wouldn’t seem to fit with her persona on first glance. She completely sells the part, however, and never hits a false note. The story doesn’t sentimentalize her job and simply presents it as a straightforward profession. Her encounters with clients aren’t sexy and seem like just another day at the office for Bree. Sutherland can play big in certain parts, but he’s dialed way down here. Klute wants nothing to do with the city and just wants to solve a mystery. What’s interesting is the subtle ways that Sutherland shows his growing attraction to Bree. He might not like this environment, but he isn’t ready to give up on her because she’s a part of it.


What are some of the most memorable scenes?
The film opens at the dinner table at the Gruneman house with friends enjoying a casual dinner. In a jarring cut, Pakula shoots the same location but removes Tom Gruneman from setting. The empty chair is all we need to know to realize something is amiss. It’s a clever entry into the missing-person story without wasting time on the particulars. An early scene with Bree is equally effective but for different reasons. In a casting session for models, the camera pans across a long series of girls sitting in chairs. The evaluators have a different reason for every woman (too pretty, in another ad, strange hands), and it’s a highly unsettling. This world seems even nastier than prostitution, and Bree’s treatment later during an acting audition is nearly just as cruel. Another compelling moment is her meeting with a nervous customer. She’s confident and sells the role of being interested in him. The kicker is seeing her look at her watch during the middle of their encounter. Fonda sells this icky moment but finds a way to keep us on her side as the story progresses. We see a real fragility behind the confident wall she’s built around herself to handle this occupation.

Klute, directed by Alan J. Pakula

How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
Pakula is known for paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View and All The President’s Men, and this film rests generally within that framework. He shoots many of the scenes like an observer watching the action from a distance. Wiretaps play a key role in the plot, and even the killer is obsessed over a tape of Bree. Pakula’s style builds the suspense even when nothing thrilling is happening. We expect that something dangerous is following the action and getting ready to strike. Unlike the other films, however, the investigation isn’t the focus and is secondary to the relationships. It’s a pretty mellow affair, especially compared to the thrills promised in the trailer. Bree lives in this suspenseful environment, but her choice to connect with Klute drives the story, despite the suspenseful environment.

Jane Fonda in Klute

Would I recommend this film to another friend?
Considering the talent involved, it’s surprising that you don’t hear more about Klute. This could relate to Fonda’s departure from the spotlight, which has kept people from checking out her back catalog. Although the slower pace might turn off some viewers, I’d have no problem recommending it. The performances are strong, and Pakula does nice work milking a lot of suspense out of a pretty straightforward mystery. In that sense, it connects to Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which depicts a brutal world but has a predictable killer. Pakula finds little to celebrate in the city, and he seems to indicate there is a lot more nastiness happening than what we see on the screen.