Klute: Character Study Or Detective Thriller?

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Klute was the first of the Pakula paranoid trilogy – The Parallax View came three years later, and All The Presidents Men five. So why have I done it in this perverse order? I’ll be asking the questions, young padawan!

Really, it should be called Bree (Jane Fonda), because the Fonda character is what carries this film. A lonely New York call girl, she is reluctant when a small town private detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) turns up at her door, trying to follow up his only lead in a missing persons case. However, when she realises her own life may be at risk from a perverted maniac, she begins to slowly cooperate.

Klute’s an interesting film, partly because it’s so unusual. It’s half a detective thriller, and half a depressing character study. One half comes to the fore, as the killer’s identity is made clear early on – perhaps it could even be argued we see it in the very first scene.

The dynamic between the two leads is what makes this film thrive. The joy comes from Fonda. It’s an astonishing performance. Not only did she win the 1972 Oscar for it (with one of the shortest acceptance speeches in the history of the Academy), but she created one of the most authentic, deep, sharply edged and fascinating characters in the decade of the 70s. Just like the city she lives in, she craves for more – to be an actor, to be a model – but finds herself frustrated by life’s contradictions, and soon everything begins to slowly collapse in on her. As film critic David Del Valle says:

Pakula’s aesthetic enters on the voyeuristic pleasure of watching Bree develop into a nonhero as fear envelopes her world and her tough veneer starts to crumble when she must trust a man, perhaps for the first time.

David Del Valle

Which is far better than I could ever put it, so why not steal his quote? It is surprising that she is so good – at first, she suggested that Pakula hired Faye Dunaway, and that she wanted to be released from her contract. Obviously, Pakula rejected her offer, forcing her to persevere, and you would never believe she wasn’t too sure about the role. Well, after all’s said and done, it turned out for the best for everybody. Apart from Faye Dunaway, of course.

I think Donald Sutherland is as good as he could be. He’s a renowned actor for good reason, but I don’t think he had much to work with in terms of his character other than just being the silent type. He’s only really there to compliment Fonda and help drive forward the plot – yes, he has his own views on the city of New York, believing the grit to be ‘pathetic’, but other than that, he’s just there to advance the story. Scheider also makes a brief appearance as a lavish pimp, which is nice, and he excels in his brief appearances, but similar to Sutherland, there’s not much he can do other than watch on at Fonda in awe.

Like The French Connection, which came out in the same year (Hackman won the Oscar alongside Fonda), it brilliantly depicts New York. Unlike The French Connection, it’s less a political commentary, and more like a Joker, revelling in the urban decay of drug addicts, prostitutes and the sleazy underground crime world, happy to detach itself from crisp diplomacy. In the end, it almost feels like another character, overwhelming and suppressing.

I like that this film never feels like it oversteps it’s boundaries. It understands simplicity. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, mainly by Klute, who seems almost Clint Eastwood-like in that way. It’s never overly violent – in fact, most is left up to our imagination, from haunting and fetishised recordings; this is a film so self consciously aware of the age of surveillance that it can’t help but draw on it, just like that of The Conversation. Yet, even with the disturbed sexual fantasies, it never crosses a line, it’s never excessively curious. It’s unflinchingly realistic.

My only quibble would be the background music. The women singing ‘la la la’ repeatedly did not have the effect of eeriness. It was just annoying, as I find many of these things to be. Just stick to the effectiveness of silence – something Pakula seemed to realise three years into the future. The ending was suspenseful and one of the best parts of the film, but it was also predictable, and a little clichéd – y’know, the heroic man saving the damsel in distress? That was a little disappointing.

But, there are some brilliant shots as well, and it’s just like Del Valle said – we are made to feel like an interested voyeur. Fonda looking through an envelope of cash in a dark and empty sewing room, Sutherland slowly picking out the ripest apricot, the click click click as a rusty elevator journeys up a building: great symbolism, great imagery, and, at the end of the day, great directing by Pakula.

Klute is a detective story that quickly tells you the answer so you can bask in a delicate character study. Creating a self hating, decrepit New York, and veering fragile characters into toxic situations in that particular city – well, that ain’t such a bad idea. Letting those fragile characters really reach their full potential through wonderful actors? Not too shabby either. It knows what it is, and it knows how to make itself great. And that’s it’s true success.

Klute – 8 out of 10

21 thoughts on “Klute: Character Study Or Detective Thriller?

  1. I think your score is mean. I saw this on release at the cinema and easily gave it the full 10. Fonda was never better, and Sutherland acting ‘silence’ was a masterclass. Still holds up now, as it is so much better than more modern thrillers with similar themes.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps I could have gone higher – around 8.5 maybe? But I’ve never given a 10 before. The highest so far is 9.5 for The Godfather Part II! I do really like this film, but is it better than a Taxi Driver, say? I don’t think so, and I gave that a 8.5. I guess it’s all on your opinion on scores.

      Liked by 1 person

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