Klute at 50: a thriller less interested in a killer and more in character

Jane Fonda gives a commanding performance in a film that avoids cliche and embraces a more nuanced view of sex work

There’s a version of Klute that sounds exactly like one of the generic sexy thrillers that popped up on video in the wake of Basic Instinct in the late 1990s. A high-priced call girl stalked by a killer. A private investigator drawn helplessly into her web. A whodunnit plot that ends with a violent climactic reveal. Shannon Tweed probably starred in that movie, and the “unrated” version would have flown off the shelves at suburban video stores.

But that’s not the Klute that got made 50 years ago, even if the story plays out exactly as described. Jane Fonda does play a high-priced call girl, but with the sort of depth and dimension that sex workers had never been afforded before – and only rarely have since. (The most comparable example might be Julie Christie’s enterprising madam in the Robert Altman anti-western McCabe & Mrs Miller, which came out the same week!) Donald Sutherland does play a private investigator drawn into her web, but with a quiet passivity that mostly yields the floor to Fonda. As for the whodunnit plot, director Alan J Pakula goes out of his way to project his lack of interest in the reveal, because ambience matters more to him than thrills.

Back in the summer of 1971, there was no chance of separating the art from the artist when it came to Fonda, who hadn’t yet made her notorious tour of Hanoi, but was at the forefront of the movement to stop the Vietnam war. (Ditto Sutherland, who joined her on an anti-war road show intended to counter Bob Hope’s USO tours.) Given a character like Bree Daniels, an independent-minded prostitute in New York City, it was not Fonda’s instinct to treat her as a femme fatale sexpot, a damsel-in-distress, or even someone the audience might perceive as weak or exploited. In real life, Fonda was busy expanding the power and agency of womanhood, and here she could seize the opportunity to upend our assumptions about sex workers.

The first two scenes with Fonda set the table beautifully for the whole film. In one, Bree and about a dozen or so other pretty women participate in a cattle call for a cosmetics modeling gig. The men evaluate them, seat by seat, under some obscure criteria that none of them meet, including Bree, and off they go screen right, replaced by another dozen or so contenders for the job. In the next scene, Bree is shown having a typical, run-of-the-mill encounter with a nervous out-of-towner, easing him through his options for their time together, taking money up front for her services and efficiently going to work. As a model, she’s demeaned and objectified. As a sex worker, she’s in command.

It’s to the film’s credit that its understanding of Bree’s life only gets more complicated from there. She still lives in a world of men, after all, and there are going to be outcomes that she can’t control. One of those outcomes leads to John Klute (Sutherland), a persistent private eye, to turn up at her apartment, asking about a possible client of hers, a Pennsylvania chemical company executive who has been missing for six months. Bree doesn’t remember the guy, but she does receive phone calls with silence on the other end and she occasionally feels like she’s being stalked. John moves in downstairs to tap her phone and monitor her comings-and-goings, and one thing eventually leads to another.

The script, by Andy and Dave Lewis, offers up a few shady customers, like Bree’s former pimp (Roy Scheider) and the businessman (Charles Cioffi) bankrolling John’s operation, and the presumed “suicides” of two other prostitutes become ripe for re-examination. The film seems to yawn through most of these developments, or at least it seems more interested in what they say about Bree and John rather than how they advance the mystery. The climactic confrontation in the head office of a garment supplier is treated like the movie version of Bree turning an ordinary trick, but an earlier scene with an ageing client, in the very same space, lingers on the elegant way she caters to his specific desires. Her habits and rituals take priority over the threat of a killer on the loose.

Klute - 1971No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Snap Stills/REX (1927949c) Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland Klute - 1971

Klute was retconned into Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy”, the first in a series of brilliant thrillers that continued with 1974’s The Parallax View and 1976’s All the President’s Men, two films that seized on a growing distrust of government in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. Though it doesn’t have the conspiratorial flavor of Pakula’s more political films, Klute approaches the genre with the same creepy ambience, with camera angles that suggest surveillance and an excellent score, by Michael Small, that would seem more suited to horror, with its jangling of keys on the far end of a piano. There’s an aura of danger and instability that keeps the film on edge.

In the end, though, Klute is Fonda’s movie, and both Pakula and Sutherland seem to recognize that. (Save for the title, which is like a play/film about Antonio Salieri being called Amadeus.) It is not an argument in favor of sex work per se, even though it does the necessary service of combating the cliches and stigmas around the practice. But Fonda’s Oscar-winning performance as Bree does argue for a fullness of character – and of womanhood – that feels radically open to different possibilities and a wide spectrum of emotional experiences, including moments during therapy where she expresses uncertainty about her future and the choices she’s made. She’s powerful. She’s vulnerable. She can be extremely funny at times, too. But mostly, in a film where she struggles to disentangle herself from the obsessions of men, Bree wants to be left alone.


Scott Tobias

The GuardianTramp

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