Private detective in a small town, John Klute (Donald Sutherland) had his friend go missing recently. He was a dedicated family man, a well-liked businessman locally, but on a trip to New York City he seems to have disappeared and neither his wife nor Klute can come up with a reasonable explanation as to why. Then the policemen investigating share one of a handful of letters with them that the missing man supposedly wrote to a young woman in the city, and they do not paint him in a benevolent light. Therefore Klute takes it upon himself to travel to New York and track down his friend, maybe even clear his name as it is getting increasingly sullied by rumour and evidence...
But we're not that interested in Klute, for despite this being one of the hits Sutherland starred in straight after his blockbuster MASH, it was his co-star who gathered the headlines and almost all the focus. How could she not? This was the early seventies, and she was Jane Fonda, one of the most divisive figures in America at that time thanks to her anti-war activism which had led her to visit Vietnam on a mission of peace. It was not solely the Nixon Government who were furious with her, it seemed half the population were too, which made it all the more striking that she would win the Best Actress Oscar for her role here, as if the Academy were siding with Fonda in the turmoil.
Or maybe it was for another reason, one that is starkly apparent whenever you see this film: her performance was terrific. Elsewhere, despite her dedication and determination to be regarded for her professionalism, on screen she could come across as a little mannered, as if we could perceive the technique she used, but here with call girl Bree Daniels she served up one of the most layered, specific and accomplished portrayals of any woman to pick up the gong, before or since. Her dialogue may have been on the self-conscious side, but she carried it with great aplomb, crafting a character who was so convincing that it was little wonder she was the favourite on the night.
So there was a case of Oscar getting it right, which does not always happen by any means, but Fonda was not alone in her drive to do her best for Bree, a sex worker who visits her psychiatrist to rationalise her job, but allows chinks in her armour to be glimpsed where her essential vulnerability was plain, no matter for the most part she is taking advantage of a bunch of schlubby men who are more often than not simply lonely for female company. However, in this group there is one who is not content with this transaction and has started to spy on and intimidate Bree, someone who may be the missing man Klute is after, or may be someone else; whichever, he is dangerous and as this was essentially a murder mystery as far as the plot went, the heroine was the damsel in distress to be saved in the last act.
So the script was not above clichés, and the mystery itself was one of those where you went, oh, right, that was a bit out of the blue, when the solution was proffered, but what mattered was Fonda. Director Alan J. Pakula's insistence on concocting a sense of paranoia that seeps into the bones of not only the characters but the audience as well, and Gordon Willis's cinematography, with some of the most exquisite imagery of menace ever displayed, all without being too blatant about precisely where that menace stemmed from. Sutherland was playing a narrative device, and did it well though we never quite believe Klute and Bree would be that attracted to each other outside of the thriller conventions, but it was Fonda who continues to impress with possibly her best efforts on film. No matter how rooted Bree was in 1971 - her hair, her fashion, her slang - there was so much modern to future eras about how she suffers under what we now call toxic masculinity that she is still strikingly sympathetic. It's a brilliant performance in a film that is ever so slightly unworthy of her. Music, sustaining the creepy mood, by Michael Small.
[This is released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection with these features:
New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by camera operator Michael Chapman, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
New conversation between actors Jane Fonda and Illeana Douglas (this is great stuff, worth getting the disc for)
New documentary about Klute and director Alan J. Pakula by filmmaker Matthew Miele, featuring scholars, filmmakers, and Pakula's family and friends
The Look of Klute, a new interview with writer Amy Fine Collins
Archival interviews with Pakula and Fonda
"Klute" in New York, a short documentary made during the shooting of the film
PLUS: An essay by critic Mark Harris and excerpts from a 1972 interview with Pakula,]
As the eighties dawned, Pakula had a hit with Holocaust drama Sophie's Choice, but seemed to lose his touch thereafter with middling efforts such as the odd drama Dream Lover, expensive flop Orphans, hit thriller Presumed Innocent, failure Consenting Adults, Julia Roberts vehicle The Pelican Brief and Harrison Ford-Brad Pitt team up The Devil's Own. He was once married to actress Hope Lange and died in a road accident.
First time I saw Klute was on Arabic television. They had a habit of switching from one film to another either midway or sometimes towards the ending. That was the case with Klute. So for fifteen years I assumed the finale was much darker than what actually happens and chalked that up to, well, it was the Seventies.
Jane Fonda is phenomenal of course, but I think Donald Sutherland's performance is underrated. He makes John Klute a unique mix of innocent and creepy.
9 Aug 2019
It's an unsettling film all over, really. But you thought for fifteen years, "Gawd, poor old Bree, murdered by a serial killer!", did you? The actual ending is more ambiguous - remember when a mainstream movie could end on ambiguity? Seems a very long time ago.