For those who think noirs are difficult to define in themselves, defining and classifying neo-noirs are even more so. For instance, one of the defining features of noir was the pervasive use of high contrast cinematography and shadows, with plenty of night scenes, but this was never a given in neo-noir as perhaps the most famous neo-noir of all in Chinatown was shot primarily in the daytime. It could be said that the neo-noir’s connection with classic noir was closer to their literary origins than their cinematic ones; namely, the potboilers that featured detectives, a femme fatale, and a mystery, along with a suspenseful atmosphere. The neo-noirs also brought with them a social conscience that the progenitors lacked; although both seem to arise out of periods of socio-cultural turmoil, only the neo-noirs tried to depict that turmoil. Pinpointing when neo-noir started is perhaps even more difficult, but they seemed to become most prominent in the ’70s.
Temporally, that makes Klute an early neo-noir. It stars Jane Fonda as one of the great noir heroines/femme fatales named Bree Daniels. Bree is a call girl in New York City where John Klute (Donald Sutherland) has been hired by Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi) to investigate the disappearance of his friend, Tom Gruneman. Over the years, the case has gone cold as the FBI has been unable to make any headway. The connection of Tom to Bree is a series of letters that were found in Tom’s desk. But considering the two years that have passed since their “relationship”, it’s difficult for Bree to offer any helpful information. As the film progresses, she feels herself being watched and stalked by an unknown presence and Klute becomes her protector.
The first thing that will strike anyone about Klute is the depth in which it’s immersed in late ’60s and early ’70s culture. Everything from the music, to the wardrobe, to the theme of women’s liberation, to the fascination with psychiatric analysis firmly establishes this film as part of a very specific Zeitgeist. Works of art with such distinctive historical stamps are always difficult to evaluate; do they capture/evoke the period or are they hopelessly dated? Klute is a fascinating mix of both of these extremes, sometimes succeeding and failing within the confines of any given element. To start with the good, Bree is a character that’s as good a representation of feminism during the Women’s Lib movement as I’ve seen on film, and that depiction is aided tremendously by Fonda’s phenomenal performance. Outside of that, everything else is much sketchier.
Particularly, there is a certain era sleaze that drips off the film like sweat from a hairy-chested, mustachioed, male pornstar. Part of it comes from the disintegration and degradation of the New York City slums settings, part of it from the extensive looks inside Bree’s clientele and the lives of her former “co-workers”, and even more from the classic neo-noir saxophone score, which is intermittently swapped for a creepy (but thoroughly cheesy) Ligeti-like piano piece accompanied by a “lalala”-ing female voice. Even the great cinematography of Gordon Willis has an unnerving, claustrophobic, licentious, voyeuristic element to it. This quality is equally shared in the sound design and the motif of a voice recording device.
This latter element is a potent reminder of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, even though Klute precedes that film by almost three years. The two films are a fascinating study in similarities and contrasts; while both feature voice recording as a motif, in The Conversation it exists because of Gene Hackman’s character’s profession, while in Klute it is used as an infiltrator of privacy. While both films are part of a distinct era, The Conversation feels infinitely more timeless and less inundated by its historical context. While both films are concerned with psychological studies of their characters, Coppola’s doesn’t resort to the device of a psychiatrist (even though the psychiatrist adds depth to Bree’s character, the device feels completely cheap). The two films also share a more tenuous connection in the cinematographer Gordon Willis. While Willis wasn’t the cinematographer on The Conversation, his best-known work would be for Coppola in The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, which were to come a year after Klute. Willis’ greatness is already apparent here, especially in the subtle manipulation of natural (at least in appearance) light and space. In a brief documentary on the DVD, director Alan J. Pakula notes how Willis would frequently intuitively recognize what he was trying to accomplish with a shot and proceed to get the shot without any overt direction. Overall, this film is marked by the same ease and elegance of The Godfather (as well as Willis’ work with Woody Allen), but it also has all of the palpable, suspenseful atmosphere.
Perhaps the film’s two finest moments comes courtesy of Willis’ cinematography and Pakula’s direction. The first involves our introduction to Bree as a character. After following her on one of her calls, the film cuts to Bree relaxing in her apartment. After a long, static, medium close-up, we eventually move into her bedroom where she is preparing to go to sleep. When the phone rings and nobody is on the other end, Willis and Pakula track back slowly, capturing the feeling of isolation through the juxtaposition of those tight, womb-like close-ups, versus the domination of empty space over the individual in the closing wide shot. The other involves a silhouetted, seductive dance the Bree puts on for one of her older callers, which captures the theme of Bree’s effortless ability to master the desires of her clients. Taken together, the two scenes represent the opposing themes of control and the loss of comfort that comes with losing it.
Standing up to Willis’ cinematography is Jane Fonda’s wonderful, Oscar-winning performance. Fonda notes in the brief documentary that director Pakula helped her trust her instincts even though she’s an actress who was always full of self-doubt. Her ability to tap into those instincts is absolutely crucial in her portrayal of a character as complex as Bree. She is a character that must move from the heights of confidence during her “performances” where she’s in full control of her clients, to the valleys of doubt when her safety is put in danger by an obsessive presence that is sensed outside the edges of the frame. Throughout the film, Fonda is playing at least four aspects of Bree, including her “acting” as a call girl, her “acting” as an aspiring actress, her confessions to her psychiatrist, and the multitude of attitudes with which she approaches Klute.
Donald Sutherland’s Klute is a potent opposite to Fonda’s Bree. Far from any emotional dynamism, Sutherland plays Klute stone-faced. Essentially, he lives the life of control that Bree desperately desires, but only achieves when she’s facing her weakest opponents (namely, her sex-hungry clients). If Bree’s confidence is shaken by her stalker, it’s really Klute that breaks through her hardened exterior. But it’s a slow burn breakthrough that happens through subtle degrees. Bree and Klute’s first love scene seems to find Bree getting the upper hand when she denounces him for being just like all the others, but it’s likely that this is just another guise, as she later reveals to her psychiatrist that she’s deeply falling for Klute. In spite of her stalker, it’s really Klute that manages to unhinge Bree’s disposition the most.
As good as the cinematography, characters and performances are, they’re almost overshadowed by a film that is deeply, crucially, structurally flawed. Klute is one of those films that seems to have everything going for it in terms of its organic pieces, but whose pieces can’t seem to come together to form a coherent whole that’s greater than the sum. The rhythmic pacing is the worst problem here, and this problem is evident from the beginning as the film opens with a lengthy scene that focuses on the family of Tom Gruneman, relating any information they have about his disappearance to the FBI. Essentially, the film waits far too long (nearly 10 minutes) to get to the central Klute/Bree storyline.
You get the feeling watching this film that director Pakula simply pulled the screenplay and its content in too many directions. It tries to be a psychological character study, atmospheric noir, suspense thriller, love story, mystery and socially conscious film all at the same time, and ends up being a sloppy mess of these ingredients. The whole private detective, investigation procedural element, for instance, consists of Klute following paper thin leads that don’t logically allow for any real progress in solving the mystery. Even the dénouement, where Bree is confronted by her stalker, lacks all sense of suspenseful drama, primarily because you see the revelation coming a mile away, and partly because there is really no tension between them. Although, even here, Fonda should be especially lauded for her performance, as the three-minute long take in close-up of her face during the playback of the tapes is riveting, but only from a character, rather than a dramatic, standpoint.
Klute is a difficult film to gauge; its superb cinematography, performances, characters and atmosphere argue for it being one of the cornerstone neo-noirs, but its sloppy narrative, awkward pacing, lack of palpable drama and suspense, and dated, corny sociocultural/historical content holds it back from being truly great. For many, these flaws will be crippling, while for others they may not even be noticeable. Like so much fiction it probably will depend on just how quickly and deeply you get involved with the characters and/or sucked into the atmosphere. For me, it was one of those films that pull me in and then knocked me back out like a pendulum in nearly equal proportions.