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Warner Home Video

Starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland

Written by Andy and Dave Lewis
Directed by Alan J. Pakula

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

Klute was the first movie I sneaked into.

It was playing at a once prestigious theater, formally a vaudeville house, called the Broadway, which in its dotage the owners converted into a tri-cinema, turning its balconies into additional auditoriums. In its last days, the building was a rat-infested dump showing what today would be straight-to-video features. A projectionist named David DeCouteau worked there near the end. He later went on to make — prolifically — the kinds of movies that played in the theater he once toiled in, and after he left, one of his films actually did screen there (Creepozoids).

But that was years later. Before seeing Klute, I happened to be up in the "balcony" watching The Wild Bunch for the first time with some high school chums. Afterwards we wandered downstairs. There was such chaos in the lobby that we decided impulsively to sneak into the whatever was showing in the main auditorium (you could slip from the bathroom door into that auditorium from a little-known opposing door in the corner). The film showing turned out to be Klute. We came in at the middle and stayed to watch it again from the beginning. But during the intermission we bought "food." The concessionaire leaned toward me over the counter and said, "How do you like the movies today? Movies, plural." Indicating that she knew I had sneaked in. She didn't throw us out, but I felt terrible, an unexpected rush of guilt. Looking back, I now wonder why she cared, given that in today's theaters no one seems to have any loyalty to either the business, the space itself, or the quality of the exhibition. But at the time I had committed an act of transgression. And Klute is about living your life as an act of transgression. It is also a critique of the "wild life" of the '60s that is much more subtle, moral, and immediate than Forrest Gump.

Of course, I did not mention this transgressive incident to Pakula when I met him a few years later. The director had come to my college to promote Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, a much lesser Harold and Maude-like work now rarely revived. But Klute had grown to be one of my favorite movies, and as an auteurist I was curious to see the person behind it. Pakula proved to be a shortish bearded man dressed in casual business garb. He was articulate, charming, and relaxed, but he didn't seem particularly "movie-like." He wasn't what we were used to seeing in directors: overweight or grizzled octogenarians wearing an eyepatch. I embarrassed myself during the question-and-answer session by pressing him on his consistent favoring of imagery over narration in Klute, and the audience laughed when I proved my point with numerous examples (I am still in a rage about this; how dare a supposedly learned institution be populated by Philistines unable to get in the spirit of exploration and analysis?). Afterwards we chatted in the hallway, where he proved to be a very agreeable man, until his handler whisked him into an elevator. These days we wouldn't have gotten anywhere near him; but then, a filmmaker of his caliber of delicacy and sophistication wouldn't enjoy that kind of exposure to the public. He didn't leave, however, before confirming that the screenplay had backstory on the Klute character that was never filmed — an important point as we shall see.

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Klute was one of the first great '70s films in a classical mode. Two others appeared around 1971, The French Connection and The Last Picture Show. You can tell that these were great films because they are still watched today, influenced subsequent films, and inspired great criticism (Robin Wood's critique of Klute in the Spring 1972 issue of Film Comment remains a seminal essay on the classicism of the New Hollywood). But Klute was the one photographed by Gordon Willis, who would arguably play the most important role in Hollywood in subsequent years by reasserting classical style in modern movies, next for Coppola and then for Woody Allen. Willis used dark, mostly brown-hued colors, overhead lighting (influenced by the painter Thomas Eakins and later something of an influence on Robert Richardson), and cunning compositions within the cumbersome widescreen image.

The screenplay also has an uncommon clarity and precise understanding of psychological motivation. Credited to Andy and Dave Lewis, it's a remarkable work. The Lewises were writing brothers who neither before nor since have been associated with a film as rich as Klute. Since the '70s, the pair seem to have vanished from Hollywood. Sadly for them, this suggests that many of the virtues of Klute have to do with Pakula's stunning work with his actors.

A business executive and happy family man based in Pennsylvania named Tom Grunemann has disappeared around Christmas. After the FBI fails to glean anything about the case, his best friend, a local cop named John Klute (Donald Sutherland), volunteers six months later, in June, to act as a private investigator. His sole clue is a woman named Bree Daniel (the credits and IMDb.com name her so, but the character is alternatingly called "Daniel" and "Daniels" in the movie). Played by Jane Fonda, she is a Manhattan call girl trying to get out of the business and find a job in acting. Unfortunately, she seems addicted to The Life, not just because of the easy money, but, as she explains to her therapist, because it cocoons her psychologically. Klute contacts her because there is a belief that she is still being harassed by Grunemann, presumed to be still alive but in hiding, and possibly even the killer of two hookers. Reporting to Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), Grunemann's business associate, Klute hires Bree to take him on a tour of the underworld, descending (in the tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel) deeper into the world of crime, prostitution, drugs, and night-life. Though Klute's eyes, Bree sees her world, and her ex-boyfriend Frank (a delightfully oily Roy Scheider) as if for the first time, and undergoes psychological turmoil. Meanwhile, the killer, sensing that Klute is closer to exposing him, is boxed into a corner and takes action.

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Klute is primarily known as a Jane Fonda movie. After all, she won a best actress Oscar and numerous other awards for her performance. It is the last of her "sexy" performances (and one can see why she is revered as a fetish icon on various websites). In the years since, the prostitute has become an easy symbol for screenwriters trying to explore sex and capitalism. But Fonda, quite simply, is brilliant in this breakthrough role. On the other hand, parts like Bree don't come around all that often. Bree is a fully realized character, selfish yet sensitive, ugly and beautiful, a person presented in all her dimensions. Anyone who has ever socialized with strippers or hookers or other denizens of that world will instantly recognized the truth in Bree's barbed, mercurial, theatrical personality.

But the acting throughout the movie is superb. Pakula was an amazing director of actors, or at least amazing at casting good actors. His gallery of realistic performances is probably the greatest of all movies made from the '70s onward. From Redford, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, Lindsay Crouse, Valerie Curtin, and Penny Peyser, among many others, in All the President's Men through Burt Reynolds in Starting Over to Kevin Spacey and others in Consenting Adults, Pakula brought out the best in his casts. Redford's turn as Bob Woodward in All the President's Men is so frighteningly real that you are liable to think at first that he is bad, when in actuality he is recreating the bumbling we all go through in life with excruciating accuracy. Even minor characters, such as the FBI agents and a psychiatrist's secretary in Klute, add needed authenticity in subsidiary but important parts.

But Klute also came at a time when mixed audiences were interested in mature fare. After all, nothing much happens in Klute. There is one minor chase, and one brief fistfight. The rest is talk. And psychological investigation. Klute seemed "mature" at the time because it was the first of the "anti-mysteries" that turned the genre upside down by de-emphasizing the thrills and conventions and adding realism or a parody of the genre. Penn's Night Moves and Altman's The Long Goodbye followed, while in popular fiction Feiffer's Ackroyd and Berger's Who is Teddy Villanova? wrung new, modernist changes on the genre, and Roger L. Simon in The Big Fix and Andrew Bergman in The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 re-energized stale formats.

Why is Klute "classical?" For one thing, the film embraces good music instead of pop tunes. Michael Small's score offers some of the best musical accompaniment of any film of its time, from tinkling suspense music with women's sighing voices (like an Italian giallo) to a balalaika melody to a disco number to a great jazzy score to accompany what film buffs like to call the Jaws moment. That's the scene where Bree and Klute are shopping in an outdoor fruit market, and she is shown to have accepted him as a partner. It mirrors that great celebration of intimacy in Jaws when Lorraine Gary asks her husband, "Wanna get drunk and fool around?" Klute also follows the traditional Hollywood script structure as enunciated in Kristin Thompson' s brilliant study, Storytelling in the New Hollywood, published by Harvard University Press. Thompson argues that the so-called "New" Hollywood operates under the same narrative structural imperatives that have existed in the commercial industry since the silent era. And indeed if you time the movie according to Thompson's template it conforms beautifully with that structure. Also, the screenplay is very careful to fully motivate all the actions changes in character from scene to scene, as per usual Hollywood practice, which at its best strives for absolute clarity and logic. Thus for all its modern feel, Klute is richly embedded in a long, fine tradition.

After a good start, Pakula's career dipped in its long middle like many directors, with unfocused, odd projects such as the play adaptation Orphans and the autobiographical See You in the Morning, but it ended on at least a financially successful note with adaptations of pop novels such as Presumed Innocent and The Pelican Brief, before his death after 30 films in a freak freeway accident in November of 1998. He made a lot of good films, but Klute is probably his greatest.

In his Film Comment article (never reprinted), Robin Wood notes that "part of Klute's triumph is that it succeeds perfectly as a genre movie, a work of popular entertainment , a classical thriller of the Will-he-kill-her-before-they-get-him? variety, while remaining a work of the most serious commitments arising out of an awareness of essential contemporary moral issues." Wood tracks the way that the film is structured on a foundation of replications of three versions of everything, and how the film follows the trajectory of Bree through a profound psychological journey, while keeping Klute mysterious, and almost in the background (even though the movie is named after him).

But Robin Wood isn't the only critic to find key themes in Klute. In Celluloid Skyline, a recent book by James Sanders on the use of New York City in the movies, Klute is singled out as an example of the heightened danger of the city as seen in movies from the '60s onward. Sanders notes the thematic of how Bree's apartment door symbolizes her isolation and pops up at key stages of Klute and Bree's relationship. "In an all-too-familiar ritual of modern life, we watch her unlock her door, enter the apartment, and instantly lock up again... The locked door is a metaphor for her whole existence — and for the modern city itself, where anonymity and fear have brought on an obsession with security and isolation... Her relationship with Klute gradually deepens, until the day when Klute finally lets himself into the apartment, having been given his own set of keys."

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Warner's DVD edition of Klute comes in a stripped-down package, but with an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1). Gordon's Willis's cinematography shines in a virtually spotless print. The audio remains the Dolby 1.0 mono from the even more stripped-down 1994 Laserdisc, but it is audible and sounds fine. (Also here is a French track and an array of subtitles).

The DVD adds the (rather longish) theatrical trailer and an eight-minute "making-of" featurette, "Klute in New York: A Background for Suspense," made at the time of release, and which is much more frank than anything conceivable today in the same genre. Fonda, Sutherland, and Pakula all speak harshly about how awful New York City is. This little featurette is also discreet about the fact that Fonda and Sutherland were lovers at the time, and shows little bits of scenes being filmed that were trimmed for the final release. Perhaps if there is enthusiasm for this edition, Warner Home Video can plot a special edition re-release with a "making-of" documentary and audio commentary tracks. It is too late for Pakula, of course (though he has appeared on shows from Cavett to Charlie Rose). But the reclusive Fonda is at least still around, and she could go into detail about her research among Manhattan's call girls. Sutherland might also make a contribution, while Willis could explore the birth of his distinctive visual style.

— D.K. Holm

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