I must have seen Alan J. Pakula‘s Klute about a half-dozen times in that last couple of years. After the first screening or two, I tirelessly searched the depths of eBay for original stills, posters, and lobby cards from the film’s original release, coming away with a rather attractive one-sheet and a trimmed 7×9″ publicity still of Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. The cycle of my film obsessions follow much the same pattern; once I have materially sated the initial excitement over an outstanding film, I move on to something else. In the case of Klute, however, I find that I keep coming back for more.
Like big, beautiful epics, another one of my cinematic weakenesses is for strong female characters. Jane Fonda’s Oscar-winning turn as Bree Daniels is all at once violently assertive, stealthily manipulative, tirelessly self-confident and a string of other related adjectives. Bree, an experienced New York City escort has known the heights of Park Avenue but cannot remain content in a life of turning tricks and paying up to Roy Scheider’s mercilessly brutal pimp Frank Lagourin. Pakula narrates Bree’s ongoing struggle to break out of “the life” through a series of sessions with her psychoanalyst (Vivian Nathan), where she presents the audience with a powerful picture of a woman who knows herself incredibly well. Bree is in a sense addicted to the power she is able to exercise over each john, confident that for a moment she is the “greatest actress in the world and the greatest fuck in the world.” That sense of control over life is the key to Bree’s inability to let go of prostitution. She has no control over her failure as a stage actress, a profession she sees as a tangible escape from prostitution, especially since she is able to utilize the theatrical skills that made her such a success in that life.
Donald Sutherland’s title character, John Klute, meets Bree in the course of investigating a missing persons case, the details of which are systematically revealed throughout the course of the film but at the same time seem almost peripheral to the relationship that develops between these two. Unlike so many films in which romantic relationships seem anywhere from trite to childish to bizarre, Pakula takes the time to believably introduce these two polar opposites, ceaselessly wearing down their prejudices and defenses over the course of the film. The interplay that unfolds between Bree and Klute is riveting and the chemistry between Fonda and Sutherland is a perfect synthesis of vulnerability and genuine trust. Watching Bree advance and retreat, trying to entice Klute to give up his “square” morality and give in and become one of the group of faceless johns that she scorns is one of the most revealing character studies ever committed to film. Bree admits her fright as experiencing genuine emotions toward Klute, which flies in the face of her hardened sentiment that men are all the same. Her instinct is to destroy those emotions and retreat to the safety of being “numb.”
Klute presents an interesting social commentary on the ageless question of “square” morality and its attitudes towards prostitution. The truth of Tom Gruneman’s disappearance and the revelation that family friend and coworker, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), is a murderous sexual deviant masquerading under the pretense of being a normal family man turns socially acceptable prejudices on their heads. The film’s climax is shattering in its brutality, with Cable reassuring himself of his normalcy by venomously casting the blame on Bree and other women like her who have exploited his sexual predilections and threaten to ruin the idyllic work and home life that he has so meticulously built and fought to maintain. So desperate is he to salvage this illusion, perhaps more for his own sake than for that of his family, Cable sees murder as the only way to silence those with the knowledge of his secrets. The way Pakula ends this film gives the audience just enough closure to feel nominally satisfied, but at the same time leaves enough open to doubt the direction of any of the character’s lives. It is a perfect balance between the surety of the Guneman case’s solution and the immediate directionlessness of the lives of Bree and Klute.