[Note: this is the second film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]
When I think about the American New Wave I tend to picture the male actors who were prominent throughout: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, Dustin Hoffman, Randy Quaid, Gene Hackman, Elliott Gould, and then later on Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and John Cazale. There are many more, of course, and I’m not about to suggest that the work by the likes of Faye Dunaway, Ali McGraw, Julie Christie or Ellen Burstyn doesn’t stack up. It’s just that the period leaned heavily towards the men. Hardly surprising: lots of male directors, male writers, male producers, so it wasn’t so much ‘New Hollywood’ as ‘More Of The Same Hollywood’. If you look at a list of relevant films you’ll see that the majority featured principal characters played by men, and women tended to appear in supporting roles; there are comparatively fewer films from the era about female characters, even if the traditional idea of the noble, strong male hero was left in tatters by 1975. But anyway, this imbalance is what makes Klute all the more valuable. It may be named after the male private detective John Klute, played by Donald Sutherland, but for large parts he feels like an afterthought, and it’s clear that director Alan J. Pakula was far more interested in Jane Fonda’s prostitute Bree Daniels. Because of the name of the film I’d always just assumed it was a straightforward male-cop-protects-vulnerable-female deal – which it is, at its most basic level – so the strength of the Daniels character, and the attention lavished upon her, came as something as a surprise, even though I already knew Fonda picked up an Oscar for her performance.
Bree is by far the most interesting character in Klute. She works in New York City and seems to feed off the electricity of Manhattan’s counterculture / underground / underworld, and the fact that it makes outsiders like John Klute feel uneasy. She is completely confident in her own ability to handle her customers, even though – as we learn – every now and again she will happen upon an abusive man or a client who takes things even further than a beating. Her prostitution is evidently paying for a certain lifestyle – her desire to carve out an acting career is less successful in terms of rent-paying – but working in the sex trade is something that she wants to do, rather than something she is forced to do; she feels that it gives her power, and an outlet through which she can pretend to act, to pretend to be someone else. She does question whether she wants to continue, though: we see Fonda deliver long monologues, in which Bree discusses her mental state and the idea of sex addiction, among other things, with a psychiatrist.
Klute, though not exactly an alpha male, offers a degree of protection when Bree starts receiving crank calls and becomes the latest potential target of the film’s antagonist; she uses him for this at first, but gradually develops feelings for him, which concern her as it may lead eventually to…marriage? But she also toys with him, taking the investigator to the apartment of her old pimp (Roy Scheider) during the period in which Klute is beginning to fall in love with her. She taunts him about the fact he’s a square, leading him into a fairly wild-looking club and enjoying his lack of comfort. The set-up leads us to think that she needs him, but in actual fact it’s less clear-cut than that, even though the story by Andy and Dave Lewis includes one of those finales in which the male hero swoops in to save the day. Fonda’s character is vulnerable as she is the target of a psycopath and a serial killer, but she’s also presented as strong, intelligent and independent; this article from The Quietus at the end of last year points out that her clothing in several scenes even resembles the kind of chain-mail armour you’d expect to see on a figure like Joan of Arc.
Pakula turns our expected idea of the cop/prostitute/stalker dynamic completely on its head at times, and Klute is all the more refreshing for it. Even more impressive is the director’s ability to create a feeling of paranoia in the film, which increases gradually, as you’d expect. This was the first film in his so-called ‘paranoia trilogy’, the other two being The Parallax View and All The President’s Men, and he achieves this mood partly through shot choices – close-up reaction shots, mainly – and partly via highly effective sound design. There’s a discordant, unsettling soundtrack by Michael Small, in which voices seemingly float out of the ether, adding a degree of early-70s trippiness to proceedings, but Small was equally adept at writing freaky disco songs too (I used to DJ here and there in London, and would play this number). Then there’s the insistent butting-in of telephones, which pepper the film and preclude the two main characters from sharing intimate moments; they are a constant reminder to Klute that he is supposed to be working, and a reminder to Daniels that she is in danger. Surveillance is a key theme; the film opens with a tape recording, and a tape reel whirring round, and there’s a constant feeling of privacy being invaded with bugs planted and recordings played back to unsettle the characters. One thinks instantly of Francis Ford Coppola’s later film The Conversation whenever you see them, but in Klute it’s almost as if recording devices are being used as weapons in mind games, and to terrorise Daniels. We also see things from the perspective of the stalker; the camera, wielded by no less a figure than Gordon Willis, peers in through a skylight, watches from across the street, lurks at the back of a shop, always watching Bree Daniels.
There’s no doubt that Klute is dated by its milieu, as well as its dialogue, and by today’s thriller standards the film is light on action; Pakula is less interested in grandstanding, relief-inducing showdowns and more interested in ensuring the tension remains constant. But we’re crying out for intelligent, unsettling, offbeat mysteries like this today, and it’s anti-formulaic aspects – particularly the enhanced focus on the stalked, rather than the stalker or the protector – mark it out as a deeply unusual film. It’s enhanced to no small degree by Fonda’s excellent performance – perhaps a career best – and the discordant, dizzying soundtrack, which ranks as one of the finest of the era (in terms of the ones that I’m aware of, of course).
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula.
Written by: Andy Lewis, Dave Lewis.
Starring: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider, Charles Cioffi, Dorothy Tristan.
Cinematography: Gordon Willis.
Editing: Carl Lerner.
Music: Michael Small.
Running Time: 114 minutes.