Klute (1971)

Directed by Alan J. Pakula; Written by Andy Lewis and David E. Lewis

Taut and at times terrifying, Pakula’s Klute is the starting gun to his paranoia trilogy, trading in same sense of despondency that The Parallax View would later kick into overdrive, while still retaining some small measure of hope afforded by the ability of the determined and resourceful – a trait that would see its ultimate appraisal in All The President’s Men.

Donald Sutherland is John Klute, a 6’4” school boy turned private investigator far from native Pennsylvania. Quiet and observant like a goldfish, he’s in New York City looking into the disappearance of a friend who left the known world in a cloud of ignominy as initial findings revealed him to be a pervert with a dirty pen pal – all the while being a consummate family man!

Sutherland’s wide eyes belie a shrewd investigator, however, picking up the trail where the authorities gave up, and getting ahold of Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), the recipient of his friend’s lewd letters. She’s a party girl whose workload the police estimates as upwards of 600-700 tricks a year, a figure offered to both shame and impress as if to suggest her entanglement in the sordid affair was deserved, and the consequences therefrom also.  

Bree’s obviously more than fed up with dour-looking white men who care about her only as far as it leads them to finding this upstanding citizen gone astray in the seedy streets of the city. Nonetheless, as Klute’s poking around brings Bree into the crosshairs of a man who gets off on hurting women, she enters an uneasy partnership with Klute that hopes to stop the shadowy figure and perhaps solve the missing person’s case. 

This partnership is the film’s immediate pleasure. Sutherland’s disarming patience is a jutting cliff, while Fonda gets to be the crashing waves in a study of opposites, with Bree a character for the ages and an archetype of the hard woman who breaks like a girl. She suffers no fools who come her way, but her private life finds her a shivering leaf looking for shelter in a world that won’t ever look out for her the same way it’ll protect men. Ironically, it’s that same society that makes giddy use of her services, these respectable men in town on business with their wives back in flyover country. In John there’s a lack of judgment, and together, there’s alchemy at play, something both exciting and wholesome.

There’s an immersive authenticity to Klute and its picture of New York as it falls headfirst into the 70s, with its ravaged streets and outsized streetwear. As the years relentlessly march on, revisiting places that were through films like this have their own particular pleasure detached from the story itself, and watching Bree and Klute in their elements, be it in dingy apartments, garbage-laden streetscapes, or industrial decay, transports you effortlessly. 

That would be all good on its own, but there’s a conceptual sensibility added to Pakula’s film when it steps out of these common spaces and into the restricted offices of the powerful who ostensibly want Klute’s friend found. With the sky as their backdrop, sometimes backlit to become silhouettes, seated in vast offices of glass and metal, it’s here Klute offers its perspective on what’s really at work in its universe.

The Parallax View tapped into the recruitment of angry and ill-adjusted young men for nefarious purposes, while Klute exposes the still-festering misogyny that surrounds sex work, and bourgeoisie hypocrisy when it comes to how women use their own body. It’s this societal mechanism that is the real terror  of Klute, not the flesh-and-blood monster who preys on the weak, manipulates society’s good manners, or abuses power. Pakula unveils his monster early, all to show how what should be dreaded is the insidious societal forces that create and protect them. It’s what makes his films harder to shake, as they may end with one foe vanquished, but one is left with the knowledge that the Hydra lives on

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