Klute: Trying to See Her

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.”

It could have gone wrong so easily. But the movie that resulted from this nervous collaboration 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. Klute is not, as Pakula feared it would be, “a character study in a melodrama” but rather a character study that uses the trappings of melodrama to deepen its portrait of the character it’s studying. The film undercuts every expectation it sets up: it’s a cop movie that isn’t about the cop; a modern western that almost never leaves the canyons, hideaways, and saloons of Manhattan; a whodunit that, with defiant indifference, gives away the “who” after forty minutes; and a thriller that, although menace seems to choke every frame, contains almost no violence at all. No wonder some critics were baffled: Variety’s reviewer dismissed it as a “mixed-up sex-crime pic” and a “suspenser without much suspense.” The Village Voice’s Molly Haskell, one of the first to grasp what Pakula was doing, put it better, writing that he “uses suspense the way some people use music, as background atmosphere.” (In that, Pakula got an essential assist from Michael Small’s eerily evocative score, which always seems to suggest unsettling sounds coming from the next apartment.)

Although Klute ended up as a remarkable example of what Hollywood movies had the potential to become, it began its life as little more than a minor reworking of what they had long been. Looking to get out of TV, the Lewis brothers came up with what Andy later described as a variation on a tried-and-true premise he had remembered from the Saturday Evening Post western stories of his childhood: “the rube who turns the tables on the city slickers.” The concept was one of which movies never seemed to tire—Don Siegel had recently dusted it off for the Clint Eastwood action film Coogan’s Bluff—and its newest embodiment would be John Klute, a detective from tiny Tuscarora, Pennsylvania, who is hired to find out what happened to a businessman who disappeared, possibly in New York City and possibly in connection with a prostitute, six months earlier.

Before The Sterile Cuckoo, Pakula had spent his entire film career not as a director but as a producer, working exclusively with Robert Mulligan, a socially conscious filmmaker whose work during the sixties had touched on racism (To Kill a Mockingbird), abortion (Love with the Proper Stranger), homosexuality (Inside Daisy Clover), and the plight of inner-city high schoolers (Up the Down Staircase), often showcasing strong, idiosyncratic female leads. During those same years, Fonda had been busy playing ingenue roles, from Barefoot in the Park to Barbarella, until she broke out with her unstinting performance as a despairing marathon-dance competitor in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? When Pakula signed on for Klute, he approached her almost immediately, and although the newly politicized actor wondered “if it wasn’t politically incorrect to play a call girl,” as she later admitted in her autobiography, she took the role.

The partnership of Pakula and Fonda began to transform Klute almost immediately. At first, Pakula later said, he “wanted to explore the character of Klute more deeply.” But as he worked to cut the long screenplay down to shootable length, he found himself paring away Klute’s scenes and amplifying Bree’s inner life. As she became the movie’s subject, its intended hero became a reticent, almost silent observer, as fascinated by her as Pakula was. It was Pakula who came up with the idea of tape recorders as a central plot element—they’re seen in the movie in the first scene, used as surveillance aids throughout, and finally deployed as a monstrous psychological weapon at the film’s climax. Today, the motif reads as pre-Watergate prescience and has led many to consider Klute to be the first chapter of a directorial “paranoia trilogy” that continues with The Parallax View (1974) and concludes in All the President’s Men (1976).

But the tape recorders are much more than just a period-specific device; they’re a way of dissociating sound from image. In Klute, Bree is, from the first, a personality in danger of fragmenting. The first time we “meet” her, coolly discussing business arrangements in the educated cadences of a modern professional, she is merely a disembodied voice, creating a picture of complete erotic assurance. “Have you ever been with a woman before, paying her? . . . I have a feeling that that turns you on very particularly . . . Don’t be afraid. I’m not. As long as you don’t hurt me more than I like to be hurt. I will do anything you ask . . . Nothing is wrong. I think the only way that any of us can ever be happy is to let it all hang out, you know. Do it all, and fuck it.” But the soundtrack’s promise of a woman in control is swiftly reversed by the next scene, in which Bree sits silently at a cattle call for a modeling gig, as women in a row of chairs are, with brutal dispassion, assessed and dispatched. First heard but not seen; then seen but not heard. The elegance of that juxtaposition is typical of Klute’s economy: in just two swift strokes, it raises a question (whether Bree will ever get to be a whole person, body, face, voice, and mind together) and undercuts what would have been a prevailing assumption in 1971 (that sex work is the most dehumanizing of her options), two tensions that will propel the entire film.

That opening also tells us that the real mystery Klute is going to unfold is who Bree is and how she thinks. In that regard, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Fonda’s contribution. She slept in Bree’s apartment, which had been built on a New York soundstage (Pakula even installed a working toilet for her), and, rarely for an actress of that era, she was heeded by her male colleague about everything from what Bree would have on her kitchen wall (a drawing of JFK) to how she would spend her downtime (getting high, sipping wine, and reading Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs). Initially, Pakula worried that Fonda, whose mind was much on politics, would be distracted. He soon realized there was no cause for concern. “She can spend the time when somebody is lighting a film making endless telephone calls, raising money, whatever, and seem to be totally uninterested in the film,” he said. “But when you say, ‘We’re ready for you, Jane,’ she says, ‘All right, give me a few minutes.’ She just stands quietly for three minutes and concentrates, and then she’s totally and completely in the film, and nothing else exists.”

“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.”

It was Fonda who suggested to Pakula that Bree’s psychiatrist, written as male, be changed to female because Bree would never open up to a man. In those crucial sequences, we learn that Bree has sought a woman’s help in understanding why she’s torn about what she’s doing; those scenes, almost entirely improvised (Pakula used six minutes of the ninety he shot), show an actor revealing a character she has already done the phenomenally hard work of imagining to her core. It’s Bree’s intellect and edgy self-awareness that make Klute such a break with previous movie treatments of prostitution—she 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. Those therapy scenes—privileged glimpses into the way Bree constructs herself, in which we as observers are never allowed to condescend to her—may be what inspired Pauline Kael to call Bree “one of the strongest feminine characters to reach the screen,” and to note that “though there have been countless movie prostitutes, this is perhaps the first major attempt to transform modern clinical understanding into human understanding and dramatic meaning.” In Klute, therapy is used not to break Bree down but to give her an opportunity to plumb her own mind, and as we watch her musing, reconsidering, overriding herself, always thinking, the movie dips into vérité in ways for which there was then very little precedent in a genre film.

In shaping Klute and our perception of Bree, cinematographer Gordon Willis can also be regarded as a virtual coauthor. Over the next decade, Willis, who would work with Pakula five more times, would earn the nickname the Prince of Darkness; that was largely in reference to his work on the Godfather films but is nowhere more applicable than here. Enveloping Bree in a blackness that always seems on the verge of devouring her completely, Willis makes her the constant center of our attention by implicitly threatening to obliterate her. In an early scene in which Bree opens up to Klute about her past, Willis fills the frame with Klute’s back, a mass of undifferentiated black that turns Bree into a small light in danger of being snuffed out by everything around her. Willis could transform Bree’s apartment from a comfortable place to nestle at night into a warren of ominous shadows. Unsparingly (but never misogynistically), he isolates Bree, cuts her in half, shrinks her—and the more he does, the more we lean in to the screen, determined to hold on to her, to try to see her.

The final piece of the puzzle is Klute himself. Almost by design, it’s easy to overlook Donald Sutherland—some critics talked about Fonda “stealing” the movie, as if her centrality to it were a product of neglect rather than a calculated decision. But Sutherland doesn’t treat Klute as a contest; rather, he works with great restraint and precision (just watch the way he eats in his first scene) as Fonda’s partner, and ours. Like us, he spends much of the film watching Bree, breath held. His work in Klute is a reminder of what a generous and flexible leading man he has been with actresses as different as Julie Christie (Don’t Look Now) and Mary Tyler Moore (Ordinary People)—and also of how resistant he is to cliché. Sutherland eschews every opportunity to play Klute as a hayseed, a moral compass, or a white knight; he is so recessive, and gives away so little, that whenever he expresses anything it’s a jolt to Bree, and to us; we’ve been trying to figure him out as well.

The modesty of Sutherland’s work allows Klute to have it both ways at the end, as it must: the film’s climax—a double rescue, first from immediate danger and then from a city full of sin—would not be out of place in an old cowboy movie in which the stoic lawman decides to make the humbled heroine an honest woman. But Klute endures so beautifully in part because it is never interested in shaming Bree or marginalizing her; in fact, she gets the film’s last words, and their ambivalence stings. Bree wonders if she just might pull off the part of a country wife—or if she’ll be back in her New York apartment within a week, to resume a more familiar role. It’s not a question the movie lets us answer with either reflexive optimism or knee-jerk cynicism, just a rare understanding that her choices are, and always have been, her own.