(director: Alan J. Pakula; screenwriters: Andy Lewis/Dave Lewis; cinematographer: Gordon Willis; editor: Carl Lerner; cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Roy Scheider (Frank), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Rita Gam (Trina), Anthony Holland (Actor’s Agent), Richard B. Shull (Sugarman), Shirley Stoller (Momma Rose), Robert Milli (Tom Gruneman), Betty Murray (Holly Gruneman), Vivian Nathan (Analyst); Runtime: 114; Warner Bros.; 1971)
“Klute was fresh when it came out in the 1970s, but time has taken away much of its boldness.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A reticent small town Pennsylvania private detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired to track down an engineer researcher who never returned from New York City six months ago. Klute is a friend of the victim’s family hired by the research firm’s top executive Peter Cable (Cioffi), after the FBI failed to come up with anything concrete. It’s the family’s hope that since Klute was a friend of Tom Gruneman (Milli) he will doggedly search for him, which will overcome his lack of investigating experience. There are disturbing pornographic letters that suddenly materialize, ones that Tom wrote to a high class NYC call-girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), which mention how he likes to get beaten.
The FBI tells Klute that Bree can’t remember the john, but remembers getting beaten two years ago by one of her customers. The FBI closed her business down as a result of the investigation. After spending a brief stay in jail she is trying to land either a modeling or acting job, while doing tricks on a part-time basis. She is also seeing a psychiatrist so she can understand why she has a need to be a call-girl.
Bree reluctantly agrees to help Klute after receiving heavy breathing calls and sensing that someone is following her. Their relationship becomes the heart of the film, rather than the mystery story. The film’s main asset is that it is played as a psychological character study of the Jane Fonda character, who becomes a prostitute because she can control men and is good at it. Sutherland, in an understated performance, is revealed as someone who becomes overprotective of her, even to the point of it being an obsession, going beyond his call of duty to get to the bottom of the case. Their love affair emerges unexpectedly and is unsettling to both, but real feelings develop on both sides to the surprise of each and how they resolve it is what gives this film its bit of magic.
The mystery part was solved early on. We see Cable listening to a tape of Bree he secretly recorded, where she states her view “that nothing one does is wrong — let it all hang out.” The suspense comes as we learn what happened to Tom and how and why he was framed by Cable. It now becomes a matter of proving he did it and seeing if Klute can protect Jane from him.
The film takes us into Bree’s world of pimps, high-rollers, prostitutes, and drug-addicts, a world Klute thinks is pathetic. She is an intelligent woman whose outer persona is one of a confident woman who is able to break free of her pimp husband Frank, but inside she is a scared girl afraid of the dark and of being alone.
These scenes offered no real insight into that underground world of prostitution, leaving many dry spells in the thin story line. The three murders Cable commits were all done off camera, so he is never viewed as a violent man. He becomes a source of analysis when he confesses to Bree why he did what he did.
Jane Fonda did get into the head of an intelligent call-girl character who is searching for answers to her life. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance, though I thought she was at times shrill and played the role with too much of a calculated effort. I actually preferred Donald Sutherland’s contrasting role, even though the film wasn’t about him, I thought his normalcy was harder to convey than her hipster role. It was a film about conflicts over emotional involvement and independence, whereas I thought Fonda could recover more easily from this tragic part of her life than Sutherland.
Klute was fresh when it came out in the 1970s, but time has taken away much of its boldness. Even the semi-nude scenes are very tame by today’s standards. What remains enticing is the ambiguity of the couple’s fate as lovers after the crisis is resolved, as each has made it clear they belong in the world they staked out for themselves no matter how emotionally they may need each other: Sutherland as a hick, Fonda as a city-slicker.
REVIEWED ON 10/11/2000 GRADE: B-