22nd Aug2019

‘Klute’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Charles Cioffi, Roy Scheider, Robert Milli | Written by Andy Lewis, Dave Lewis | Directed by Alan J. Pakula

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Released in 1971, Alan J. Pakula’s sophomore feature Klute is regarded as the first of his unofficial Paranoia Trilogy, which would go on to include The Parallax View and All the President’s Men. However, Klute is far less overtly political – and far more intimate – than those later pictures.

Donald Sutherland plays the titular John Klute, a private investigator who is employed to look into the disappearance of a man named Tom (Robert Milli). Apparently, shortly before his death, Tom was sending filthy letters to a New York call girl named Bree (Jane Fonda). So, John heads to NYC to interview Bree. Once there, a stuttering, sad and sensual relationship begins.

John’s task is to trace the points backwards from Bree’s encounter with a man who once assaulted her – a man presumed to be Tom. But this intrigue is a giant Maguffin for an intense and intelligent character study. The title refers to the man; the film is about a woman.

Fonda won an Oscar for her role, and deservedly so. The way that she switches between physical and emotional registers is utterly convincing. Bree isn’t so much an open door as a broken suitcase – her baggage just keeps spilling out. She is the perfect dramatic foil for Klute’s infuriating impenetrability.

This isn’t to say that Bree is easily knowable. Her work with her clients is acting. (She even aspires to be a legitimate actress.) Bree says she would like to be “faceless, bodiless and left alone.” She is afraid of being truly known. It’s a story about authenticity. How do we know when we are being truly ourselves and in the moment? Bree talks of manipulating John – but maybe she’s fooling herself into believing she has no real feelings for him; fooling herself that she has more control than she really does.

Bree is no angel-hearted hooker. She can be cruel and manipulative. In one scene she visits John, purporting to be vulnerable. She sleeps with him, supposedly for comfort – and then she departs feeling just fine, leaving him the vulnerable one. The balance of power swings. It’s calculating, but always her manipulation is a way of protecting herself.

Though the film is unsentimental, the development of the relationship between Bree and John is subtly moving. There’s a lovely sequence where Bree retreats to the arms of her pimp (Roy Scheider); and when she returns to her apartment, red-eyed and ashamed, the cuckolded John wordlessly makes her bed for her. It’s a heartbreaking moment, illuminating their relationship in a myriad of ways.

Bree is torn between the dangerous, exciting, unpredictable world she knows and the unknown, scarier world of normality. At one point, she and John buy fruit. They buy fruit, like regular people. There’s a father with his child on his shoulders and Bree glimpses another possible reality. It’s a reality gated off in her mind. How do we entertain an ordinary world in the midst of chaotic, uncertain circumstances? One person’s fantasy is another’s ordinary.

While several of the film’s key moments come without dialogue, it’s a talky film – it just knows when to shut up. Plot exposition is brief and efficient, whereas character exposition is lengthy and detailed. There is a satisfying clarity and balance to the script, making actions and words meaningful and motivations clear. The script is structured to suit the characters rather than the plot chronology. We learn a lot about Bree through her counselling sessions, which act as narration, and these could be occurring at any time. It doesn’t matter – they are simply there to clarify scenes which would otherwise be left frustratingly obtuse.

Carl Lerner’s editing is stunning throughout – just check out the nerve-shredding scene where John goes to investigate some noises on the roof, and he ends up exploring an unknown, deathly dark space, intercut with flashes of the torch. The editing affects our perception of these mysterious catacombs, drawing us into John’s fear.

Pakula works with cinematographer Gordon Willis (best known for The Godfather and his work with Woody Allen) to conjure the world behind the windows of a scuzzy 1970s New York. The beautifully arranged static shots and long takes allow the actors’ performances to breathe. Characters are often isolated amid shadow, alone in pools of light, increasing the sense of isolation, scrutiny, vulnerability.

Coming across like a highly sophisticated update of Stanley Kubrick’s early noir, Killer’s Kiss, this is a highly intelligent and engrossing drama which forefronts a woman in a genre usually dominated by men. Here, the man gets the functional role while the woman flourishes. That Klute still feels fresh and confident and confrontational almost 50 years on speaks to its enduring power, and its enduring uniqueness in cinema.

Special Edition Features:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by camera operator Michael Chapman, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • New conversation between actors Jane Fonda and Illeana Douglas
  • New documentary about Klute and director Alan J. Pakula by filmmaker Matthew Miele, featuring scholars, filmmakers, and Pakula’s family and friends
  • The Look of Klute, a new interview with writer Amy Fine Collins
  • Archival interviews with Pakula and Fonda
  • “Klute” in New York, a short documentary made during the shooting of the film
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Mark Harris and excerpts from a 1972 interview with Pakula

Klute is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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