Some great films were made in the late sixties and seventies about the sleazy, exploitative underbelly of America’s sex industry. John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), Scorsese’s Tax Driver (1976) and Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), all spring to mind. But, surely one of the most gripping and atmospheric offerings in this tawdry canon is Alan J Pakula’s 1971 movie, Klute.
Klute is often referred to as the first of Pakula’s so-called ‘paranoia trilogy’, along with the trippy political thriller, Parallax View (1974), and his film about the Washington Post’s disclosure of the Watergate scandal, All The President’s Men (1976). Klute certainly has a number of themes in common with these two films, including the prominent use of (what was for its time) high tech surveillance equipment to create a sense of fear and unease, and how this alters human interactions. But the film is also a fascinating slice of New York in the early seventies.
A senior executive for a Pennsylvanian company, Tom Gruneman, has gone missing. When several months of police investigation turn up nothing, the head of the company, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi) hires a local policeman and a friend of the family, John Klute (Donald Sutherland) to try and get to the bottom of the mystery. Klute follows up on one of the few leads in the case, a series of letters Gruneman sent to a New York prostitute called Bree Daniel (Jane Fonda).
The austere, slightly creepy Klute, rents an apartment in the basement of Daniel’s building, taps her phone and starts following her around in the hope of picking up a trace Gruneman. He eventually confronts her about what he is doing. She informs him Gruneman could have been a past client who beat her, but she can’t remember. Daniel also confides in Klute that she is being followed and her fears Gruneman could be the person behind this and a series of threatening phone calls she’s been receiving.
Daniel and Klute form an uneasy alliance and she takes him on a journey through the underbelly of New York’s vice trade. They visit her former pimp, Frank (a scene stealing turn by Roy Scheider), who says one of his former prostitutes passed the abusive male client into Daniel and another women, Arlyn. The first prostitute in is long dead, having supposedly committed suicide, and Arlyn is a hopeless junkie. When Arlyn turns up dead, also apparently the result of suicide, Klute forms a theory that there is a link between the deaths and believes Daniel could be next.
The central spine of the film, Klute’s search for Gruneman, the possibility the businessman may be a murderer and that Daniel is his next victim, is a messy and ambiguous affair which nonetheless manages to create a real sense of tension and fear. But this aspect shares equal billing with the relationship between the two lead characters.
Daniel is smart, energetic, cynical and conflicted about her chosen profession as a call girl. On the one hand she revels in the temporary control it gives her over her male clients, but, as she confessors to her analyst, she’s also tired of the job and wants to get out. The scenes in which Daniel talks through these thoughts, the so-called sexually liberated women who’s also deeply neurotic, come across now as a little dated and cliched. What saves the character is the way Pakula shows Daniel trying to break into so-called legitimate professions, modelling and acting, which are really just as exploitative and demeaning as sex work. The depiction of how she manipulates Klute, sexually and emotionally, the constantly shifting balance of power between the two is also well conceived.
Fonda owns this film and apparently hung out with real New York pimps and call girls in order to prepare for the role. It is interesting to watch her performance, which came off the back of an equally amazing effort in Sydney Pollock’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), and think that a year later she would stir nationwide outrage and temporarily derail her career by visiting Hanoi and being photographed seated on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery.
I have always found Sutherland to have a strange and unique screen presence. He is not particularly attractive and the charisma of his screen persona is matched by an awkwardness of sorts. It is used to good affect in Klute. Sutherland is perfect as the straight-laced copy, totally out of his depth in New York and his relationship with Daniel, whose allure and lifestyle he is both fascinated and repulsed by. The scenes in which Klute enters her world are a highlight, including his interactions with the magnetic, ruthless Frank, and a short but terrific scene in which he accompanies Bree on a visit to a make shift porn theatre presided over Shirley Stoler from the 1969 classic, The Honeymoon Killers.
Further enhancing the film is beautiful cinematography, which captures seventies New York at its gritty, dishevelled best, and the wonderful layered atmospheric score by Michael Small. This incorporates the eerie electronic sounds of eves dropping equipment and phones ringing in the middle of the night.