Sunday, 7 September 2014

Klute (1971)

"For an hour I'm the best actress in the world..."

Not many people have heard of Klute. That reality is a grievous injustice, ignoring the grown-up intelligence of a superb psychological thriller. Alan Pakula’s dark analysis of urban immorality has all the essential qualities of a 1970s crime classic: grime, sex and ambiguous characters. Before Martin Scorsese took a bite out of the Big Apple with similar themes, Klute paved the way towards darker American filmmaking with a female protagonist that makes Katniss Everdeen look like a Barbie doll.

Serpico, Midnight Cowboy and The Conversation are just a few of the relics from this ‘metropolitan misery’ sub-genre which remain famous and revered among film buffs. So why is Klute not one of them? With career-defining performances from Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, this unique film deserves to be recognised alongside its peers.

One explanation might be the dated and relatively weak twists of the psycho-thriller plot. Too much is revealed at an early stage to tease enough suspenseful rumblings for a gripping climax, in contrast to the constant uncertainty of, for instance, Network. Nevertheless, the script benefits from distinctive women’s lib and Freudian borrowings to produce a riveting study of human beings, devoid of attention-seeking melodrama or cheap insincerity.

Sutherland plays a private detective sent to New York to track down Bree Daniel (Fonda), a call girl with information related to the disappearance of a businessman. Having already gained critical credibility after They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Fonda gives an incredible performance in the unconventional leading role. Her characterisation avoids the reckless stereotypes trotted out by lesser Hollywood scripts - particularly in the case of sex workers, often categorised as ‘heart of gold’ or femme fatale types. Bree is smart, unsentimental and a stubbornly reluctant victim. She remains dispassionate until the very end, at which point Fonda reaches a whole new level of acting perfection, adding tiny details to her role which defy succinct explanation.

In the face of Fonda’s stiff competition for the viewer’s applause, Sutherland also raises his game with a marvellously subdued presence as the solemn investigator. It is a quality he would prove again two years later in Don’t Look Now, albeit with a scene-stealing moustache and perm combination. In the case of both stars there is no ostentation or trickery in front of the camera; just character acting at its very best.

The interplay between the two eventually forms a believable romance, but one in which there is no straightforward reasoning. A question of exploitation is raised after every scene: who is playing who in this total mismatch? Like all the greatest thrillers, character motives remain murky until the tight conclusion and there is enough ugly human behaviour to please even Hobbes. That nastiness is primarily embodied in Bree’s pimp, played by Roy Scheider – another magnificent character actor of the decade.

Alan Pakula’s melancholic directing proves that American pessimism predated Watergate. It is an appropriate accolade, therefore; considering he would go on to make All the President’s Men. His shots have a sad beauty to them, particularly through the way he frames Bree’s lonely seductions. It’s dark, sweaty and a little too honest for comfort. His use of noise is also especially effective when it comes to building suspense. Note the central use of tape recorders by the story’s goodies and baddies, a full three years before The Conversation was released.

Despite its few flaws, Klute represents a historic moment in mainstream cinema. It may have been largely forgotten in modern memories but that does not mean it isn’t worth watching.


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