Viking Night: Klute
By Bruce Hall
January 7, 2014
The late Alan J Pakula was a distinguished director whose career highlights included such little known films as All the President’s Men and Sophie’s choice. He was well practiced in bringing taut, suspenseful thrillers to life and in 1971 his sophomore effort, Klute, almost counts as an early win in that department. You could call it part gumshoe crime caper, part erotic thriller and maybe even a little proto-feminist potboiler. The framework is a standard issue urban mystery filled with mysterious people and lurid urges. But around this blossoms a raw and unexpectedly compelling subplot whose primary performance overshadows the main plot and carries much of the movie. And then it makes one, big stupid mistake that I can’t really reveal OR forgive.
Klute gets intimate right out of the gate, with a fly on the wall view of a private dinner party. Successful businessman Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli) and his wife are entertaining their closest friends and associates, including John Klute (Donald Sutherland), a dryly efficient private detective who considers himself Tom’s best friend. Shortly thereafter Tom goes missing, and among his possessions is found a super dirty letter ostensibly written by him and addressed to a call girl named Bree (Jane Fonda). The police investigate, but Tom’s trail goes quickly cold. Fed up, Tom’s wife enlists the help of another successful businessman, Tom’s boss Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi). They hire Klute to pick up the trail and get results.
Klute travels to New York and begins surveillance on Bree. He dispassionately tapes a sufficiently incriminating number of her on the job experiences, which he immediately uses to encourage her cooperation. With the scant information they have between them, they continue the investigation. Klute appears to be a competent detective, but Bree gives him access to people and places that might have stayed off the map otherwise. After a visit with Bree’s former pimp (Roy Scheider, in full polyester glory) the trail starts to heat up – right about the same time (42-year-old spoiler alert) our two attractive leads start boning. Now that they are intertwined professionally, personally AND physically, Klute the crime-solving robot betrays a gentler side. And Bree starts seeing things in herself she never believed were there.
And this is easily the most interesting thing about Klute. As I said before, this is the kind of by-the-numbers procedural that would be on the TV every night of the week a decade later. The fact that it concerns the exploits of a particularly gifted, especially foul mouthed prostitute might have been racy stuff in 1971, but today it’s just an average Grand Theft Auto mission. This is not what I feel so invested in at the end of the film, when what can only be described as a “screenwriter brain fart” appears out of nowhere and kicks the rest of the story right in the sack. But I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, know that the best thing about Klute is Jane Fonda, and so much so that the movie probably should have been called “Bree”, except that’s actually a pretty shitty name for an R rated crime thriller.
So, I guess that’s why it’s called “Klute”.
Anyway, at key points throughout the story, we get to watch Bree interact with her psychologist. Bree makes good money, but she’s conflicted about what she does for a living and why she does it, and not for the reasons you might think. So obviously, a significant chunk of all that hard earned coin goes to a head shrink, and Bree’s sessions chronicle (and are influenced by) what happens as the story progresses. As the character evolves, so does Fonda’s performance, and both her dialogue - and the conviction with which she delivers it – are as spot on as anything you’re ever likely to see on film. Bree’s growth is really the center of the film, and the murders, and the investigation – that framework I mentioned – are merely the impetus for it. I thought that was pretty cool and I was very interested in how it was going to end – and then it did, and what the effing what?
All I’ll say is that even though Klute’s investigation is only ostensibly the focus of the story, that doesn’t make it less important. This means that when the case concludes, it would be nice to have some sort of payoff whereby you feel like the emotional investment you had in the film was worth it. It would be nice if a moderately convoluted story like this could tie all the threads back together in a satisfying way that made you say “Wow, I totally didn’t see that coming!” instead of “Wow, is that really how this is gonna end?” A couple of guys named Andy and Dave Lewis either wrote the screenplay and handed the last few pages to a monkey, or they’re the actual monkeys who wrote the last few pages.
Either way, Bree’s amazing depth – and Fonda’s amazing performance – almost feels wasted by the film’s eventual minimization of the issues driving her forward. Don’t get me wrong, though. I actually like Klute quite a bit – it’s tense and moody, and its leisurely, occasionally meandering pace is redeemed by the almost dreamlike conviction with which it sells itself. Each time you think nothing’s happening, you realize what just actually happened. Each time you think Sutherland might be underselling his character, you realize how well he emotes with just his eyes and the corners of his mouth. It’s a better movie than you think it is while you’re watching it, but thanks to one unforgivable mistake, it will forever be a 30 minute rewrite from greatness.