Alan J. Pakula’s character study masquerading as a first-rate (and it is first-rate) thriller, Klute, has always seemed to be curiously named to me. Not just because “Klute” is an odd name to begin with, but more so because the film is named for Donald Sutherland’s dogged, stoic private investigator, John Klute, when the character the movie is most interested in is a world-weary call girl named Bree Daniel, played (in an all-time great performance) by Jane Fonda.
Fonda was entering into the peak of her career in 1971 when Klute was released. Just two years earlier, Fonda scored her first Oscar nomination in Sidney Pollack’s sublime depression-era drama, They Shoot Horses Don’t They? As great as Fonda was in that film (which is to say, very), she was even better in Klute. Hollywood has produced an endless number of “hooker with a heart of gold” characters, but Bree Daniel is not that kind of cliche—she’s more complicated. She’s smart, talented (she aspires to be an actress or a model), and she’s tough as nails. She’s also entering her mid-thirties, and a sense of desperation is starting to seep into her life.
After being arrested in conjunction with a missing person case, Bree has scaled back her career as a prostitute, leaving behind a Park Avenue address for an efficiency apartment in a modest neighborhood. She knows if she’s going to get out of “the life” she has a short time to do it—not many women break into modeling or acting as they approach middle-age, and while this point is never directly expressed, it can be felt in nearly every scene. Especially when Bree is passed over for a modeling gig in cruel, dismissive fashion (along with a host of other women at a cattle call for a cosmetics company), or when she auditions for a play (knowing that, while she delivers a strong reading, she is not likely to get the part). Bree is beginning to realize that “good luck” is for others, and while she’s still young (enough) and beautiful enough to keep “tricking,” the clock on her occupation is ticking right along with her greater aspirations.
There is a remarkable scene early in the film where Bree explains her perspective on her life to her therapist (that she can barely afford). Why does she do what she does? In just under three minutes of screen time, Fonda, without even the slightest touch of sentimentality, breaks your heart as she explains the sense of control she gets from meeting “Johns” while also expressing the vacancy in her life with nothing more than her eyes and tone of voice. It’s not that she’s morally conflicted—she sees nothing wrong with trading pleasure for cash—but more that she understands the limits of her control, and that this is the only place in her life that she has it. She gets a sense of satisfaction from separating men from their money, from being wanted, from having power. What she gets out of these encounters with men is not physical, it’s psychological—but it’s not enough, and Bree knows it. As her session ends, she says, “It’s just so silly to think that somebody else can help anybody, isn’t it?” I don’t know that I’ve ever heard such a nihilistic line tossed off so casually and brutally at the same time. It takes your breath away.
To complicate matters further, that missing person case that she thought was behind her turns up again, as John Klute shows up at her door to “ask a few questions.” Bree toys with Sutherland for a moment before locking the door and walking away from it. Klute is going to have to do better than boilerplate if he wants any information out of a woman savvy enough to know that discretion is paramount in all aspects of her life.
What follows that not so “meet cute” upends a trope of the film noir genre: The P.I. and the call girl do become involved as he turns from interrogating her to protecting her from a stalker who vacillates between toying with the flame of his indulgences and his need to tie up loose ends (Bree being one of them). What makes it different when the two have sex on what may possibly be the ugliest mattress in film history, is the why. Bree needs Klute’s protection, but she also needs to level the playing field between them, and she does so in the way she knows best—seduction.
And it works. Klute falls for Bree. When she refers to him as a “John” after their first night together (in a way that is so mean-spirited that it is almost shocking) you can almost see Sutherland’s 6 foot 4 frame wilt as she shuts the door of his dingy, temporary lodgings behind her.
Up until that moment, Donald Sutherland’s performance is a study in exquisite minimalism. It’s an incredibly confident performance. For most of the film, Sutherland is doing almost nothing, yet somehow he exudes everything you need to know about John Klute: he is decent, he is square, and he is determined to find the truth no matter where it leads.
In the midst of all this grim and grime, there’s an impossibly lovely sequence where the two go shopping for fresh produce at a street-side vendor. It’s a largely wordless scene, but there’s a moment when we see Bree forget herself, and, well, melt as she stands behind her man while he looks for the perfect peach. She catches herself briefly, and withdraws, but then extends herself again, this time consciously choosing him by reaching out and pinching the back of his jacket. It is a profoundly romantic moment in a film that is otherwise anything but.
In another type of film, Bree and Klute would team up and stay on the same side for the remainder of the movie. But Bree is too damaged, too self-destructive to simply fold under Klute’s arm and carry on to a happy ending. Not once, but twice in the film she turns to her former pimp, a human oil slick played by Roy Scheider. When it all gets too heavy (and there’s a lot of “heavy” in this film), Bree retreats to what she knows. Her armor may not be good for her, but it is her armor, and she’s too afraid not to put it on in the face of being confronted with real emotion.
Fonda is completely believable in her conflict. In the hands of another actor (and to be fair, director) this battle with her compulsions could feel like whiplash. Not so with Fonda, who is so good that you almost wonder if there was any point to the Academy naming four other nominees in the category of Best Actress that year. Who could possibly compete with such a performance? In every moment onscreen, you feel that behind her bravado, underneath her beautiful appearance, Bree Daniel is fighting for her life. So much so that in the film’s climax, when she is truly fighting for her life, that the literal distinction of that moment seems only slightly more perilous than her walking out of her front door on any given day.
Klute ends on a shaky, but hopeful note. Bags are packed. A cat is placed in a carrier. A still-young woman steps out of the threshold of her emptied-out apartment. A man pulls the door shut with a deft movement of his swinging foot-heel. But the woman’s voice-over suggests that we should wrap our hopes in caution, as we hear her tell her shrink that she needs to get out of the city, but then with a flippancy that may portend tragedy says,
Maybe I’ll come back.
You’ll probably see me next week.
It’s a perfect ending for a movie perfect in every way except for its title.
Klute should have been called Bree.