USA (114 mi) 1971 ‘Scope d: Alan J. Pakula
Alan J. Pakula, a Yale drama graduate, is one of the leading proponents of richly textured, character-driven dramas, where he helped guide eight different actors to Oscar-nominated performances, including Academy Award winners relatively early in the careers of both Jane Fonda (age 34) in KLUTE (1971) and Meryl Streep (age 33, another Yale grad) in SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982). In much the same vein as Roman Polanski, Pakula excels in smart, sophisticated thrillers, known for creating tension through oppressive, tightly constricted screen space, with a fascination for sleek, modern exteriors that lend a timelessness to his films. The 70’s may be the greatest era of American cinema, where the once-powerful Hollywood Studios sold off many of their assets temporarily reducing their power and influence, leaving an opening for directors to have an impact on films like never before, producing the likes of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and BARRY LYNDON (1975), Altman’s MASH (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Images (1972), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), Nashville (1975), and 3 Women (1977), Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972), THE GODFATHER Pt. II (1974), THE CONVERSATION (1974) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL (1977) and MANHATTAN (1979), but also American independent films like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), along with a decade of films from movie maverick John Cassavetes, Husbands (1970), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977). Almost forgotten in this firestorm of powerful dramas are the carefully orchestrated paranoid thrillers of Alan J. Pakula, who specializes in suspense thrillers layered in subtlety, plot secrets, and deception. The first of what would become known as the “paranoia trilogy,” along with THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974) and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), these were films made in response to the looming fears that gripped the nation coming on the heels of 60’s assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, where television images flooded the nation reinforcing a government that had lost control, where behind the scenes secret and often nefarious powers vied for the power vacuum, where instead of the massive participatory demonstrations of the protest movements of the 60’s, suddenly ordinary citizens felt powerless to effect their destiny.
The paranoia thriller exemplified impotence in the face of danger, simultaneously ushering in an era of 70’s disaster films like AIRPORT (1970), THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), EARTHQUAKE (1974), THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974), and JAWS (1975), with revenge films to follow in the 80’s, vividly portraying a breakdown of community cohesiveness leaving the individual feeling isolated, hopelessly trapped and alone, exuding a strange and mysterious passivity bordering on defeatism, represented by Sydney Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975). What’s lacking in these films is a conquering hero to eradicate the pervasive threat, like Clint Eastwood in DIRTY HARRY (1971) or Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH (1974), as the mythical era of the western hero has passed, replaced by ineffectual real-life political leaders disgraced by unethical abuse of power and rampant corruption, where Pakula in particular emphasized the empty spaciousness of the surroundings, where the individual is dwarfed by the seemingly mammoth skyscraper reflections of power and modernity, barraged by interior fears, often of unknown origin, while the idea of security or personal well-being has all but vanished, left with a feeling of impending doom creeping into the moral fabric of society. Ironically, Pakula himself lost his life in a freak auto accident on the Long Island Expressway in 1998 when another car hit a lead pipe on the road that flew through his windshield, killing him instantly. KLUTE was the director’s first major commercial success, significant for the exhaustive research done by both the director and lead actress in exploring the lurid, behind-the-scenes lives of Manhattan’s call girls, including meticulous production values that included fashionable haute couture outfits from Fonda’s own personal wardrobe that made such a splash onscreen. Despite Pakula’s considerable talents, this is largely remembered as a Jane Fonda movie, having lost the Oscar earlier to British actress Maggie Smith in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969), despite being the odds-on favorite for her amazing performance in Sydney Pollack’s THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (1969), suspected to be due to her unpopular (in Hollywood) “Hanoi Jane” activism against the war in Vietnam at the time. But in KLUTE Fonda is quite simply brilliant in a career-defining performance, blowing away the all-British competition to win the Best Actress Award, the last of her “sexy” performances playing a high-priced call girl in this interesting dual exploration of sex and capitalism as seen through the lens of the burgeoning feminist movement. Written by Dave and Andy Lewis, almost exclusively known as television writers, Fonda’s character is uncommonly rich and fully realized, a complex composite of a prostitute and film noir femme fatale, much of it developed improvisationally by Fonda herself, especially the therapy sessions, exhibiting mood shifts that are often beautiful and ugly in the same scene, where her surface level wit and everpresent sarcasm is her chief defense mechanism hiding a more scarred and wounded interior soul.
KLUTE is an unusually intelligent film that balances mood and atmosphere with personality and vulnerability, which is what we remember afterwards in Fonda’s character of Bree Daniels. Dressed in mini-skirts and high boots, wearing tight sweaters without a bra, with a shag haircut accentuating her bangs designed by a hairdresser in New York’s Lower East Side, Bree is a modern woman that always looks like a million bucks. An aspiring model and actress, seemingly in control of her own career path, she is a part-time call-girl making quick cash in order to pay for the lavish lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, living alone, drinking wine and smoking an occasional joint upon returning home at night to relax and wind down. Mixing themes of surveillance and voyeurism, over the opening credits the audience is introduced to an audio tape recording where Bree can be heard reassuring one of her customers to relax, have fun, and basically “let it all hang out,” which serves as a kind of code for the sexual revolution of the 60’s that went awry when certain factions turned violent, basically spoiling the party for the free love generation. Meanwhile, somewhere in the heartland of Tuscarora, Pennsylvania, a family man and business executive Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli) disappears during a business trip to the city, where his boss, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), feels somewhat responsible, so he hires Gruneman’s best friend, Donald Sutherland as John Klute, a Pennsylvania-based private detective to search for his missing friend. According to the police, they reached a dead end after six month’s, as the only evidence obtained is an obscene typewritten letter found in Gruneman’s office addressed to call-girl Bree Daniels in New York, who reports receiving several letters and phone calls from Gruneman, though she can’t recall meeting him, while she also has a feeling she’s being stalked. Renting an apartment in the basement of her building, Klute taps the phone of Ms. Daniels while also following her as she turns tricks. While she exudes confidence and a sense of personal liberation by always being in control of her male customers, seen faking an orgasm while looking at her watch, we’re also privy to a different side, seen in a series of visits to her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan), where she reveals the sex work is more a compulsion than a necessity, though it pays well, but it’s hardly fulfilling, leaving behind an interior void in her life, where she’s been trying to get out of “the life” with little success. When Klute finally talks to Bree, after her initial reluctance, she reveals she was seriously beaten by a psychopathic customer several years earlier who “was serious” about beating women, though she can’t connect the photo of Gruneman to that man.
Klute discovers Bree is his only connection to a lurid world of women-for-hire in a city that he is already excluded from, so he needs her help, delving more deeply into her personal associates, including ex-boyfriend Frankie Ligourin (Roy Scheider), her former pimp and protector, a slick con man with underworld connections who is the picture of male arrogance and pride, always seen with a beautiful girl on his arm, making sure Klute gets the company message, “I want to make something clear: You know, I don’t go to a woman. A woman comes to me. *Her* choice.” Frankie reveals it was one of his other girls that passed on the abusive client to Bree and another girl, Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan). While that girl is now dead from a suicide, Page has become a drug addict and completely dropped out of sight, where she could be anywhere. Despite dealing with a sophisticated call-girl who speaks freely and openly about sex, Klute remains an honorable man, who comes from a small town and retains his core values of conservatism and good will, offering his protection, which is something Bree takes advantage of, “Don’t feel bad about losing your virtue. I sort of knew you would. Everybody always does.” However, their relationship deepens, developing into a sexual romance (as it did in real life between the two leads), where one of the best scenes in the film is walking the streets of New York together where they stop and pick up fruit at an outdoor market, where she is just eying the guy, as if for the first time, afterwards seen telling her therapist that she’s afraid of losing control, that this man is good and decent to her, who’s seen her look fabulous, but also completely horrid, where trusting a man is not easy, suggesting she wishes sometimes she could go back to “just feeling numb.” Throughout the film, she is frequently shown alone in her apartment from the vantage point of a stalker across the street who is watching her. At one point Klute realizes he’s on the roof, but his search proves futile. The uninhibited freedom of her lifestyle is constantly under threat, reflective of the early stages of a feminist era that was continually under attack as well, where it’s interesting that early feminist critics lauded the film as a realistic portrayal of a woman’s personal conflict, only to later reverse course, as her attempt to accept a man in her life for stability or balance is paramount to endorsing patriarchy. This reflects, however, the complexity of the role, as it appeals to a cross-section of viewpoints, even after the passage of time, retaining a unique blend of modernity and film noir, pitting hardboiled cynicism against the romanticism of a possible relationship.
Movies and Methods: An Anthology Pt. 1, by Bill Nichols, 1976 (pdf format)
More than a classical thriller, a “film noir,” or a contemporary reworking of the “private eye” movie — as some critics have seen it — Klute seems closer to the psychological suspense thriller, with most of the action going on inside the central character’s head. Klute is told from a highly subjective viewpoint, and the other characters, while “real,” can be seen as projections of the heroine’s psyche. The film functions on both levels, as a straight suspense story and as a dramatization of intense inner conflict, but it is from its second level that it derives its power.
Critic Diane Giddis in her essay The Divided Woman: Bree Daniels in Klute, taken from her book Women and Film, 1973, suggests women should completely disregard the conventional film noir conventions and reclaim the film on the basis of its sexual politics alone, where Bree becomes a stand-in for the feminist cause. But the film offers an equally compelling narrative about the male psyche, where the private eye genre is a vehicle commonly used for strong individual male characters, where the stalker element in a tense paranoia film adds a disturbing element of potential male violence directed towards women. Offering an openly cinéma vérité style of viewing the streets of New York, the interior shots, by contrast, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Gordon Willis, create a visual claustrophobia that explores the male fears about women. While championing Bree’s interior psychological world, where asking what a woman wants becomes such a significant aspect of her character, the film simultaneously delves into a world of male apprehension, where a liberated woman, as reflected by the repeated tape recording loop heard at the opening, somehow opens the floodgates of a demented male psychopath whose masculinity is threatened by these open sexual freedoms, where his only response is criminally inappropriate. This unfortunately reflects the existing reality where rape remains a systematically entrenched violent form of criminal male domination over women that continues to plague all sections of the globe, including the American armed forces, but is especially prevalent in war ravaged regions. The distinctively eerie musical soundtrack by Michael Small, so effective in the film, is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s memorable synth score in HALLOWEEN (1978), where it’s hard to believe Carpenter wasn’t hugely influenced by this film, as much of this has the same creepy feel as a slasher movie, where something is always approaching Bree, with the camera continuing to follow her wherever she goes (as it does Jamie Lee Curtis), at times literally becoming the eyes of the stalker. Pakula does an extraordinary job creating a feeling of pathological disassociation, of being outside societal boundaries and literally over the edge, especially the view of a man seething in his own disgust with himself, alone in the darkness of a penthouse skyscraper office with floor-to-ceiling windows revealing an utterly spectacular vantage point of the city of New York. But in fairness, the film also offers another more balanced male view, that of the titular character Klute, who may as well be a stand-in for the audience. Sutherland is terrific in a performance defined by quietly subtle restraint, where his impassive stoicism is laudable, making no judgments about her former life as a Manhattan prostitute, recognizing that she needs total acceptance as a woman to really be free of her past. He appreciates her even when she doesn’t appreciate herself, but in a subversion of the testosterone-laden film noir detective genre, he’s not the featured central character. While she freely exposes her inner domain both sexually and through repeated visits with a therapist, his more closed, inner psyche remains hidden and largely unknown, as it’s uncertain where this will all lead and whether they even have a future together. Ahead of its time both then and now, the film’s true insight is the revelation that feelings of love alter the sexual and psychic dynamic, as the normally self-reliant Bree feels increasingly overwhelmed and disempowered by a sudden surge of feelings she can’t control, as it’s no longer all about her, where learning to share the uniqueness and fragility of her own inner world with a significant other remains one of the mysterious challenges of anyone’s life.