When I included Alan J. Pakula on my poll for who most deserved a full-on retrospective (mostly at the urging of a friend, who wanted to see Pakula get his proper consideration as one of the great directors of the 1970s), it was with no small trepidation; though I didn't think he'd come anywhere close to winning (oops), I was afraid that if he just so happened to manage it, I'd be stuck with finding something, anything interesting to say about his dreadful run of films in the 1990s. And so I shall be, in about three weeks' time. But there were two things that ended up pushing me over the edge:
-I looked forward to the chance to espouse unspeakable heresies about Meryl Streep's performance in Sophie's Choice;
-I wanted to write the review that I have never seen, defending Klute as one of the most important and influential movies of the early 1970s.
And here we are!
Pakula's second project as director took some behind the scenes wrangling before it finally started filming. Around the time that The Sterile Cuckoo wrapped up, he was apparently given the chance to make a never-realised film with Jane Fonda, that never ended up going anywhere. Still, his meetings with the actress left enough of an impression upon him that when he ran across a screenplay by TV writers Andy Lewis and David P. Lewis (who I'm assuming must have been related, though I cannot find proof), a thriller about a reforming prostitute and a taciturn detective, he immediately thought that Fonda would be a perfect fit for the protagonist. The studios apparently disagreed and sensibly pushed for Barbra Streisand, who declined on the concern that she'd been in too many hooker-based thrillers of late, and feared that she'd be typecast.* Even when Pakula managed to snag Fonda for the part, the actress was none to certain that she was the right choice; thankfully, the director kept pushing her, forcing her into ever-more intense states of emotion (she apparently burst out crying sometimes, leading to one of the truly great scenes in the film). The net result was a Best Actress Oscar, for a performance customarily - and rightfully - named the best in Fonda's career.
In Klute, she plays Bree Daniels, a New York call girl who, when we meet her, is attempting to break into acting, and leave the whole sordid underworld behind her. But we don't start by learning that. We start at a boisterous dinner party in the home of one Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli), a noisy and friendly affair that rather abruptly cuts forward some months to the same setting, now the site of a police inquiry. Apparently, in the space of that single edit, Gruneman managed to get himself disappeared, and the only clue to his whereabouts is a handful of obscene notes written in his name to that same Bree Daniels. Gruneman's old friend, a private detective named John Klute (Donald Sutherland), volunteers to head to New York to track Bree down and find out whatever he can, assuming that even bad news is better than nothing at all.
Then we meet Bree, at a casting call for a model. She's just one of a great many girls, and if we don't go into the film knowing what Jane Fonda looks like - and in 1971, I very much doubt that too many people went into Klute without so knowing - we'd have no reason to pick her out of the lineup as any more special than the rest. Which is no accident: the narrative is entirely driven by Bree's wish to become as unremarkable as she possibly can, to be just a random girl in New York, without the wretched past of even a relatively high-class hooker. Which is probably why she gives Klute the brush-off from the first, though he's persistent - after all, she's the only lead he has in the whole city - and eventually manages to rope her into a quest for a man she doesn't recall in even the smallest detail, though Klute manages to ferret out that Gruneman is somehow connected to a particularly violent John that Bree encountered all of two years earlier. And thereon hangs a mystery, as the two wander from pimp to prostitute, looking to find Gruneman or evidence of what happened to him.
When I first saw the movie, a good many years ago, I was somewhat perplexed why it was called Klute when it was unabashedly Bree's story. How very silly I was then. The film may be all about Bree, but it is not a character study, in the classic sense: only in the early going do we get a few quick, detailed sketches about the kind of woman she is at the start. The rest of the story is about what happens to change her; and while that involves a great many things above and beyond John Klute, he is the prime mover for everything that befalls after the first time they meet. So Klute is not the description of the film's content, but its conflict; "Klute" describes the inciting incident in what we might call "The Emerging Consciousness of a Self-Loathing Whore", which would maybe be a good title for a short story, but not for a motion picture (unless it were French).
In hindsight, chiefly knowing Alan J. Pakula as a director of procedural thrillers, it might be tempting to think about Klute primarily as it prefigures his later work. But here at Pakulathon '09, we're taking a chronologically-based approach to his work, which means we can only compare it to The Sterile Cuckoo; and the comparison is much richer for doing so. Frankly, Klute isn't much of a thriller: we learn the identity of the killer remarkably early (and we can fairly easily guess his motives), effectively crushing most of the tension right up until the final scene, where the only question is whether Klute will connect the dots fast enough to save Bree from said killer's clutches. This isn't a flaw, though, but a trick much like when Hitchcock gave away the answer to the mystery in the second part of Vertigo almost as soon as it becomes mysterious. Namely, the filmmakers don't want us to sit around wondering what's happening, looking for clues; we're supposed to ignore the "thriller" elements of the film, and attend to the actual meat of the piece, which is the character study at the center.
As a probing look at a broken woman attempting to un-break herself, Klute is far more successful than The Sterile Cuckoo. There, we were kept apart from Liza Minelli's Pookie with a merciless, clinical perspective; watching the film is not unlike reading a psychiatrist's notes. In Klute, we actually get the psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan), speaking with Bree at frequent intervals throughout the story, in scenes that were all shot at the very end of production, so as to give Fonda the most time to steel herself emotionally for what would prove to be the most introspective, draining moments in a film not shy on introspection or emotional drain. It's altogether more intimate than Pakula's other film, particularly in the way that the grand visuals, expertly captured by the brilliant Gordon Willis in his sixth feature, after five movies that have been essentially lost to memory. In contrast to The Sterile Cuckoo, there are more close-ups in Klute almost than you know what to do with; and even the medium shots are carefully set up to tell us more about Bree and her world than just depict the action happening on screen. The film is rich with deep dark scenes, so shadowy that I'm half-tempted to trot out that over-used comparison, it's like a German Expressionist film; except that German Expressionism was hardly a common touchstone by 1971. All in all, it's a film that doesn't just dramatise Bree's psychology, but lays it out right in the very fabric of its being, a character study in which something as elemental as a tracking shot tells us volumes about the woman onscreen.
It's a tremendous jump for Pakula's aesthetic, and for his control of theme: both of his films to that point are basically the same, in that they are both psychologically-motivated studies of a woman in a particular environment, with special attention to how that environment shapes her mind. But Klute is a far more mature piece of art, so much that it's almost hard to believe that the same director was responsible for both films. Only the skill with which he directs his actresses to incredible, even dangerous mental places really unites the two (his skill as a director of performers would not soon leave him, either, and this is perhaps the most easily undervalued element of his worth as a filmmaker).
Oh, but didn't I promise that I was going to defend Klute as one of the most important films of the early 1970s? Of course "early 1970s" is a bit of a misdirect. The age of New Hollywood Cinema arguably began as early as 1966 or 1967, so 1971 is a good third of the way through. But there's a qualitative difference between e.g. The Graduate and e.g. Dog Day Afternoon, and my admittedly un-authoritative view divides that point to roughly 1971. It was really only after that point that one of the most defining characteristics of a quintessential "'70s Film" started to become truly prominent: the nihilistic, urban setting. If there is one thing that films from that decade do extraordinarily well, it's to depict a certain vision of New York as the hellhole of all hellholes, from the relative opulence and romance of something like The Godfather to the boots-on-the-ground filthiness of the era's many exploitation films. That trend started in earnest, to the best of my knowledge, with Klute, from June of 1971, and The French Connection, from October of the same year. You could write an exhausting list of all the great movies that traffic in the same milieu, and treat it in much the same fashion, as one of these two films (you could also say it all started with 1969's Midnight Cowboy, but that strikes me as an isolated early example). Certainly, the rise in that decade of smart adult-oriented thrillers began with these two films, and given the number of those thrillers that used genre trappings as a mere veil to hide the actual character piece lurking in their heart, I'm inclined to cite Klute as a much more significant influence than the largely action-oriented French Connection.
There is also the matter of representation: in Klute we find one of the first great examples of the '70s Heroine: a woman struggling to maintain her identity in a male-dominated world. It has been argued (not be me, though I'd be sorely tempted to agree) that the 1970s witnessed the strongest female characters in the history of American cinema, and Bree Daniels and her fight to be defined as something other than a sexual object is one of the most fascinating and best-acted women in any movie of that time. Beyond that, the film is a fascinating snapshot of concerns as wide ranging as the emergence of a surveillance society (there is a recurring motif of reel-to-reel recorders that would make The Conversation sit up and take notice), to the fallout from the sexual revolution, a theme that has still never been given its due in an American film, but came closest in the years immediately following this film.
And stylistically, it's right at the cusp of the best parts of that decade. Of course, most of that is a side-effect of being the first prominent work of Gordon Willis, inarguably the best American cinematographer of the decade; but Klute does hold that distinction whether by accident or not, and so it get the privilege of being the motion picture without which The Godfather's magnificent visuals could not otherwise exist. Arguably, every film for many years with any pretension towards looking good owes something to Klute, a dynamite proof that the horrible-looking film stock that seemed to be the only game in town until sometime around 1981 or 1982 could be bent towards the service of real visual elegance.
Now, Klute would be bettered in all sorts of ways by films throughout the next eight years; Pakula himself would blow past it with at least one stone-cold masterpiece before half a decade was gone. But that is not to take away from its place of prominence as one of the earliest masterpieces of its era. Everything that we love still about '70s American filmmaking is in full force here, one of the indispensable films from the most indispensable period of the last 50 years in cinema.