News and Commentary – A Semester of Seventies Films (6): Klute
Klute (1971) is another iconic film of the New Hollywood. Its gritty New York City locations and murky interiors were shot by seventies virtuoso Gordon Willis (“the prince of darkness”—if you can’t make out the screen captures below, take it up with him); Michael Chapman (subsequently the cinematographer on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) operated the camera. Producer-Director Alan Pakula, would follow up Klute with The Parallax View and All the President’s Men (both shot, recognizably, by Willis as well)—three films that would come to be known, and justly celebrated, as his “paranoid trilogy.”
Klute tells the story of Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a struggling but obviously talented actress/model/call-girl who may hold the key to solving the puzzle of a Pennsylvania businessman’s disappearance—at least that’s what novice private investigator (and good friend of the missing man) John Klute (Donald Sutherland) thinks. But don’t get too hung up on the mystery; Klute is an intense, introspective, sophisticated consideration of a troubled protagonist negotiating a difficult, imperfect, compromised world—classic seventies material. The movie is all about character, not plot; nothing else really matters. Criticized by some for presenting its leading lady as a prostitute, more to the point is that the film belongs entirely to Bree – it is concerned with her inner thoughts and her personal struggle – and it offers anything but a sanitizing Hollywood gloss on the realities of her trade. (Compare this film with the wretched Pretty Woman, and see what Hollywood lost when it left the seventies film behind).
The central question for Bree is whether she can maintain her independence without cutting herself off from the possibility of emotional intimacy with others. This issue of control (“over myself . . . over my life”), in one guise or another, is the consistent theme considered in Bree’s sessions with her therapist. Her growing feelings for Klute, and her ambivalence about them – “I feel the need to destroy it” – mark the progression of the film.
Bree’s mixed feelings for Klute are violently – and shockingly – illustrated late in the story, when she takes a murderous swipe at him with a pair of scissors. Until then her most aggressive swings had landed emotional, not physical blows. In one crucial scene, Bree, frightened, visits Klute in the middle of the night. Our intrepid boy-scout sets her up on her own cot, but hours later, at her initiative, they make love. Moments afterwards, she cuts him down (“don’t feel bad about losing your virtue, I sort of knew you would.”) Was it her intention, from the start, to seduce and then humiliate him? (Either to gain more control or to “destroy” their potential relationship?) Possibly. But she was scared when she arrived. Another possibility is that she had been sincere (and she seems to enjoy the sex, a new experience for her), and then satisfied—and only lashes out after she observes his regretful look.
An invitation to debate—at Mid Century Cinema, our favorite thing.