When Alan J. Pakula began preparing for the production of Klute (1971), he screened a lot of Alfred Hitchcock films. He looked at Notorious and admired Ingrid Bergman’s work. He revisited Strangers on a Train, struggling with the climactic merry-go-round scene, which struck him as false. And he thought hard about Psycho, a movie he admired for its craft while worrying that it blurred the line between violence and sensuality in a way that might be immoral. He also reread the book-length interview/analysis Hitchcock/Truffaut. Hoping to find inspiration, he instead came away dispirited at the thought that the film he was about to make might contradict one of Hitchcock’s central principles: “You don’t try to do a character study in a melodrama,” Pakula said. “Klute, of course, is a violation of that.”
Some masterpieces emerge from a single filmmaker’s indomitable and undeterrable vision. Others are the result of everyone on a movie’s team shocking themselves by pushing past their own limits. Klute, which stands as not only one of the great New York City films of the seventies but also a giant leap forward for Hollywood in the depiction of a woman’s interior life,is a masterpiece that its own creative team did not see coming. Pakula, who had directed only one other film, the Liza Minnelli comedy-drama The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), admitted that the subject of a restless, smart, guarded New York sex worker and the investigator trying to keep her from becoming the next victim of a serial killer was “a bit outside me.” The movie’s screenwriters, brothers Andy and Dave Lewis, were veterans of episodic television who, according to Andy, “swiped the topic, the female character, the environment, and the general course of the story from one different place or another.” And its star, Jane Fonda, whose performance as Bree Daniels remains, almost fifty years later, a benchmark for psychological realism in American screen acting, was so sure she’d been miscast that she tried to quit. In her autobiography, My Life So Far, she writes that, in the weeks before production began, she spent eight nights with hustlers, madams, call girls, and streetwalkers, then decided to opt out, telling Pakula, “Even the pimps know I’m not call-girl material.” She suggested he replace her with Faye Dunaway. He refused.
“The movie embodies, in the most rewarding way, the transformations and contradictions that defined American cinema at the dawn of one of its most creatively fertile eras.”
“Bree isn’t tragic or pathetic, and to the extent that she feels what she’s doing is a symptom of some interior damage, she’s going to explore that self-diagnosis on her own terms.”
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