Alan J. Pakula’s Klute begins with wires, spinning tapes, a tiny speaker — someone has recorded a call girl flattering her client and is, I suppose, reviewing the cache. Released in 1971, a year before the Watergate Scandal (which would become the subject of Pakula’s most famous film, All the President’s Men), Klute seems to be a good example of a 1970s paranoid thriller that anticipates the growing fear of audio surveillance. However, Klute is only sort of interested in this fear, and it seems it is only sort of interested in its central mystery — the disappearance of a wealthy Pennsylvania chemical company executive. Instead, Klute is most interested in someone who is introduced almost as a side character in a greater drama, the New York call girl Bree Daniel, played by Jane Fonda in a performance that gave her her first Academy Award, and deservedly so. While Fonda’s Bree is the woman speaking on the tape during the opening credits, we don’t see her again for some time.
The movie shifts from that dark recording to a brief scene where all is well: that wealthy Pennsylvania chemical company executive, Tom Gruneman, and his family and friends are enjoying the fruits of their labors. But this is very brief. Moments later, and before we get to know anything about any of the characters we see, we are attending an uncomfortable meeting set in the aftermath of a tragedy. Gruneman, who looked so friendly and full of life a second ago, has disappeared without much of a trace. But there is a slight trace. At this meeting, the investigator decides it’s time to tell Gruneman’s wife that they have found something . . . embarrassing in Gruneman’s office: some obscene letters he appears to have written to a New York City prostitute. Can Mrs. Gruneman believe it? Does the news knock her down? We don’t know. This is not her story. We won’t see her again.
Also attending the meeting are Peter Cable (played by Charles Cioffi), a fellow executive at the chemical company, and John Klute (played by Donald Sutherland), a family friend who also happens to be a private detective.
After the meeting, Cable hires Klute to continue the investigation into the disappearance of Gruneman. Klute may not be the best man for the job. A small town detective, he is expected to investigate a potential link between Gruneman’s disappearance and prostitution in New York City. His discomfort and silent judgement suggest that Klute wasn’t hired because of his street smarts. Klute, the film suggests with its title and its opening scenes, is the subject of this film. And, as Mark Harris points out in his essay accompanying The Criterion Collection, that was the initial intent until Pakula started working on the screenplay and saw Fonda playing Bree Daniel.
When we first meet Bree, she is sitting in a line of women, each being inspected by some fashion photographers or editors or somesuches. Each girl is summarily dismissed after a second or two (at most), and Bree’s outcome is the same. These are the men and women who can see promise — or the lack thereof — of a girl at a glance.
While Bree is attempting to break into the modeling and acting industry, she makes her money as a call girl.
This is due to desperation that has morphed to appear that it is part of the design. Throughout the picture we attend counseling sessions with Bree where she attempts to get away from turning tricks while simultaneously excusing them. She doesn’t have to feel anything because it is an act — one she is very good at. She is in control.
This may sound at first as if it’s just giving Bree a complicated surface, but Fonda adds layers and layers as we see her character genuinely struggling to makes sense of and take control of her confusing, brutal life. It’s notable that Fonda recommended the psychiatrist be female and not male as it was originally written and that Fonda improvised these scenes. These are thoughtfully rendered from the center of her performance.
Her interactions with Donald Sutherland’s Klute are also Fonda’s remarkable tool to fully realize her character. In Klute, Bree finds a fish out of water who doesn’t appear to think he can save her but who is, nevertheless, there to help her while he investigates Gruneman’s disappearance and finds himself deeper and deeper in the ugly world Bree inhabits. Bree feels judged by him and seeks immediately to make him submissive. Bree resents him. But she also appreciates him and finds, in him, an unlikely friend.
The mystery that becomes a thriller is interesting but is certainly just part of the texture. It’s the means to look closer at Bree, which is uncomfortable for her but also for us:
Before her work as Bree started in earnest, Fonda tried to dig into the role but didn’t trust she was achieving anything with it. She tried to convince Pakula to let her go and to hire someone else, like Faye Dunaway. As you can see from all I’ve written above, I essentially think this is Fonda’s movie through and through, successful and lasting due to her work. I’m glad she stuck with it.