ver and over again in 1971’s Klute do we hear the contents of a serial killer’s most cherished tape recording. On the track, a high class call girl, Bree Daniel (Jane Fonda), tells the man secretly recording her — presumably a john months ago — that he mustn’t hide his darkest fantasies. “Inhibitions are always so nice because they’re nice to overcome," she purrs. "Don’t be afraid. I’m not. I will do anything you ask.
You should never be ashamed of things like that. You mustn’t be.”
The recording plays with the frequency of “Call Me” in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980), almost mimicking a score in its defining of a scene. Sometimes it signifies danger. In other moments, it encapsulates Daniel’s ability to sexually manipulate men when need be. But most often does it represent the film’s antagonist’s fixation on finding beauty and then destroying it. To him, violence, along with the power that comes along with enacting it, is the ultimate. He believes Daniel’s phoned-in instructions to “let it all hang out” is an invitation to let his bloodlust free.
In Klute, initially of primary concern is the disappearance of businessman Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli), who has been missing for six months and was recently discovered as the possessor of an obscene letter addressed to a prostitute in New York City. Local law enforcement officials have tried day in and day out to locate the man, but all has been fruitless. This leads Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), one of Gruneman’s colleagues, to hire detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) to probe his friend’s vanishing.
As the letter was addressed to Daniel, Klute figures she is his foremost lead. So he taps her phone and stalks her as she turns tricks around the city. The first time he approaches her by way of interrogation in her apartment, she sarcastically smiles and then slams the door in his face. But when he tries again does Daniel open up, increasingly warming as creepy late-night phone calls from heavy breathers and feelings of being followed during the daytime start to mess with her. Klute will, essentially, become her protection.
Interspersed between the spotlighting of the odd but hopeful romantic relationship between Klute and Daniel are scenes that find the latter candidly opening up to her therapist (which provide the movie with some of its most memorable moments); the killer’s quiet obsessing over the tape; and the general investigation, which takes Klute, and sometimes Daniel, to seedy nightclubs, crumbling basements, and dark alleyways. We also discover that Daniel actually wants to be an actress or a model: several sequences see her auditioning for various parts, though nothing ever comes of anything.
She tells most that she’s liberated by her prostituting. But the reality is is that it’s the only time in her life where she feels like she’s in control. Take that away from her and she would merely be a struggling actress, incapable of making ends meet and thus sitting there helplessly as things spiral out of control. And she can’t take that. In effect is Klute the type of movie that centers on characters more interesting than its plot. Aside from a spine-tingling score that perpetuates the idea that we’re watching an inspired American take on giallo, it is a familiar serial killer movie, the murderer’s motivations predictable and the storyline more straightforward than appropriately twisty. We presume that this was Andy and Dave Lewis’ screenplay’s intention: to have an excuse to tell the love story between a call girl and a nice guy detective and, better yet, have a reason to plunge into the icy waters of a prostitute’s existence. The storyline is supposed to be secondary.
But the film never quite holds together because its director, Alan J. Pakula (1976’s All the President’s Men and 1982’s Sophie’s Choice), treats the plot as if it were as important as its characters. In many of his films, such is a given, and can mostly work. But in Klute, we couldn’t care less about the whodunit at hand. Daniel and Klute are too investing of people. We get a number of scenes exploring their psyches and their emotional setbacks. And yet Pakula’s dependence on plot makes those scenes feel less weighty, as if we should remember that these aren’t real people but rather individuals who are driving a storyline.
That doesn’t always matter, though, because Sutherland and particularly Fonda are so astonishing. So much of Sutherland’s performance is dependent on his reaction to Daniel, who tries to sexually manipulate him time and time again only to fail. She cares about him too much. Klute undoubtedly knows that he shouldn’t be getting involved with this woman, but from the moment he meets her, he has an inexplicable need to “save” her. He knows she deserves a better life, and he’s willing to give it to her if she lets him. As Bree Daniel, we see Fonda at the height of her powers. Having become one of the defining faces of the unofficial “New Hollywood,” Fonda is among the few living performers difficult to categorize. Daniel has so much of what we’ve come to recognize about the actress playing her: the inexplicable intensity that makes it seem as though every moment she lives is defining, the clipped, confident diction that asserts intelligence, the chameleonic body language.
But the role suits her because we see that apt disposition, recognize it, and yet see it disappear as Daniel’s vulnerability shines through. Fonda plays this woman with such careful detail it hardly feels like a performance — in many ways does it even feel improvised, as if Fonda were calling the shots and doing the most to truly embody this New York hooker. She won an Oscar for her characterization, and it’s one of the few instances in the history of the Academy in which the person taking home the gold is genuinely deserving of their triumph. Fonda is one of the cinema’s great actresses, and Klute exemplifies her fearlessness, her unique screen persona.
The movie would end up kickstarting the informal “Paranoia trilogy” of films directed by Pakula, followed by The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men. But Klute, in many regards, feels like the odd man out. We don’t remember The Parallax View or All the President’s Men for its characters. We remember them for their thrilling storylines and our emotional reactions to them. But with Klute, plot elements mean nothing. The individuals who occupy it make up the intrigue. I saw the film for the first time years ago, and walking into this re-watch could I only remember Bree Daniel and her despair. That Klute doesn’t always complement the three-dimensionality of its characters makes it a cumbersome thriller. But who cares? A