Friday, November 29, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Klute (1971)

Klute (1971)
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula.
Written by: Andy Lewis & David E. Lewis.
Starring: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina Guneman), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist).
The knock on Klute – among those who knock it – is that is a thriller that isn’t very interested in being a thriller. That somewhere along the way, the film became a character study – and not of the title character – and neglected its thriller elements that effect the film more and more as it goes on. That was kind of my opinion when I first saw the film – some 20 years ago as a teenager – who thought that Jane Fonda’s Oscar winning performance was one of the best I’d ever seen, and Gordon Willis’ typically brilliant, dark cinematography was great – but there was something off about the plotting of the film that kept it from the overall greatness of its individual elements. Watching it again for the first time in years, I have to admit I was right about Fonda – it is one of the best performances in movie history – and Willis’ photography, which is brilliant – but wrong about the film overall. At least, sort of.
As Mark Harris makes clear in his excellent Criterion essay on the film, while some films are the product of a single auteur – Klute was more of a happy accident of a lot of different people coming together at the right time. The director, Alan J. Pakula, was young – this was only his second film, and hadn’t made anything like this before. The screenwriter – Andy and David E. Lewis – were TV writers looking to make a movie. Their idea was a modern noir/western – with the classic story of the outsider besting the big city – which is why Klute (Donald Sutherland) is from small town Pennsylvania, who comes to New York, descends into a world of prostitutes, pimps and other unsavory characters and solves a crime the FBI couldn’t. But the screenplay was long, so as the Pakula cut it down to make a feature, it became clear who the most interesting character was – not Klute, but Bree Daniels, the prostitute Klute meets at the beginning of the investigation, and falls in love with – as she helps him solve the crime. Add in Jane Fonda – just discovering her political leanings, who tried to quit the movie several times, worrying she couldn’t do it – and you get one of the best female characters in screen history. Fonda dug deep here – making for inarguably the most complex portrait of a prostitute seen on screen up to then, and arguably, since. The thriller element stayed obviously – in part because you have to sell the movie. Even today, in something like Get Out, Jordan Peele had to smuggle in his message in the form of a horror film. In Klute, you have this complex character in the heart of a thriller – that doesn’t really operate as a thriller.
As a whodunit, Klute doesn’t really work. If you haven’t figured it out at the halfway point, you’re pretty dense. This isn’t to say the characters themselves are dense – we have more information than we do, and we also know we’re watching a movie, so the bad guy has to be someone we know – and really, despite how menacing Roy Scheider is in his small part, we know he’s a red herring. Gordon Willis’ amazing, shadowy cinematography gives the film the look of a thriller throughout – but does more than that as well, isolating Bree in darkness throughout the film. The fact that the never changed the name of the movie from Klute is odd in some ways – and in others not. Sutherland’s Klute is the character men in the audience will certainly relate to. Sutherland is smart enough to keep quiet throughout the film – he grows fascinating in Fonda’s Bree, and is mesmerized just watching her. It says something about Sutherland just how muted he allows himself to be here. He has done that throughout his career – which is perhaps why we have seen his female co-stars get nominated for and win Oscars, but he never does.
And then there is Fonda, who may have believed she couldn’t do the role, but could not possibly have been more wrong. The legendary scenes in the movie between her and her Psychiatrist lays that character bare in a way we don’t often see. It’s not just a portrait of a prostitute that we see there – but something that many women can relate to, in how she talks about men, and her own control over them, her own desires and fears. There is a reason that Bree Daniels has become an icon just for women – but also in the LGBTQ community as well. Fonda digs deep into a role in a way that even she I don’t think has ever done since – despite her brilliant career. This is the performance she will be remembered for.
And the ending should also be pointed out. The film has a “happy” ending in a way – as Klute saves Bree in two different ways – first from the bad guy (although it is left ambiguous as to what actually happened there) – and then from her life in the city. But in the final voiceover to her Psychiatrist, Bree wonders if it will last – if she can be the happy country wife, or whether she’ll be right back here in a week. It’s a rather daring ending – and reminds of The Searchers – or several films by Martin Scorsese or Paul Schrader, about the man who saves the woman who may not want to be saved. What this most recent rewatch of Klute clarified for me that it isn’t a good movie with a great performance its core – it’s a great movie, with a great performance at its core.

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