"Klute" is a sleek neo-noir thriller, a moving, troubling love story, and a showcase for one of cinema's most gripping performances, that of Jane Fonda as prostitute Bree Daniel. Donald Sutherland as Klute, a small-town cop on a mission of the heart in the big city, is the perfect foil to Fonda / Bree. The film is also a time capsule of hippie attitudes, styles, pleasures and paranoias. It is at times quite scary, creating an atmosphere of twisted menace. Like noirs of old, it offers glimpses into the lives of the rich and the fallen, and crackerjack dialogue.
Fonda's multiple award-winning performance in "Klute" is, alone, reason enough to see the movie. You can't take your eyes off her. She is, second-by-second, fascinating. Look away for one eyeblink, and you miss something, something spectacular. I don't know if there has ever been prostitute anything like Bree Daniel, but I know plenty of less colorfully-employed women very much like her. Fonda plays Bree as a sort of live-action, post-Friedan, feminist essay. Fonda / Bree is, by turns, convincingly terrified, vulnerable, invulnerable, vicious, tender, powerful, weak and victimized, manipulative, bruised, flush, hungry and sated. Fonda externalizes the combination of attraction and revulsion that heterosexual women have been feeling for men ever since Eve. She also creates a convincing character you can fully believe hick Klute would fall for – and would eventually break his heart. She's the bright, shiny object and he is the hypnotized puppy. Watching him fall for her, you rejoice for her – a good man will rescue her! But you worry for him. Bree can be quite the merciless headcase.
Bree's profession as prostitute is not the film's only avenue to commenting on what it means to be a woman; Bree is also an actress. Before we see her service a client, we see her on a call for an advertisement for cosmetics. We see that society condones the objectification of women as models and actresses and manikins in cosmetic ads. We see how utterly brutal and dehumanizing that demand for female flesh is. The ruthless objectification of actresses and models makes the regard a john shows Bree when she goes on a "date" seem benign by comparison. In commenting on women by commenting on acting, "Klute" would make a great second show in a double feature with "All About Eve." Fonda isn't just something to watch, she is something to hear. One of the recurrent themes of the film is surreptitious listening to recordings of voices and surreptitious study of others' written words. Several characters do it, some with benign motivations, some with quiet evil and twisted ones. I've never been as aware of Fonda's spoke voice as in this film, and her voice is jewel-like in its precision and allure. This isn't just a great movie to watch, it's a great one to *hear.* Michael Small's score is perfection. "Klute" is a small, sometimes claustrophobic, urban film, and Small's score never overwhelms; it is, in its quiet way, indispensible to the film's sense of perversion and menace, and then, subtly and believably, when the film becomes a love story, the score eases and enhances that transition. Just listening to the jazzy, low-key, intimate trumpet, you know you are hearing the soundtrack of two troubled people who are falling in love and whose love faces a rocky road. During one scene Bree services an elderly, Ashkenazi client, and the score comes right along, sounding like the cimbalom an inn in Mitteleuropa.
Donald Sutherland, as Klute, plays the "fixed foot that makes no show to move" to Bree's glitter and drama. Both Sutherland the actor and Klute the character are willing to stand back and let Fonda absorb the audience's attention. That's quite remarkable; how often in recent films has a male actor / character allowed a woman so much spotlight? Klute's quietude and stoicism are no accident, though. He is playing a strong, good, old fashioned man, one more about actions than words. He is a hero in the Gary Cooper mold.
That old fashioned heroism is a great surprise in this movie. "Klute" wallows in, and celebrates, post-censorship, post-Woodstock freedoms and indulgences. We see naked body parts, prostitutes and madams and heroin addicts and perverts, and, in a cameo, Candy Darling, Andy Warhol's star. We couldn't see this world with such detail back in the old days – but the film's heart *is* back in the old days. The good guy, Klute, the hero who rides into the wild west – hooker and drug addict run Manhattan – is a very straight, white, male cop. In this hippie, let it all hang out world, where the rich white man is utterly corrupt, the small town, working class guy is the hero.
"Klute" is rife with small performances by character actors, and small moments, that make every minute worthwhile. Charles Cioffi is frighteningly convincing. Vivian Nathan, as Bree's shrink, comes across as a real shrink. A narcissistic casting director who childishly and maliciously toys with Bree sets your teeth on edge. A black cop is solid. Roy Scheider is the pimp you love to hate.
There are priceless small touches that show intelligence and care with which director Pakula made the film. Betty Murray, as a loving wife, looks at her husband across a dinner table with such a look of love that that husband's disappearance becomes a real tragedy. Bree's apartment includes a sketch of John F. Kennedy; that sketch tells us something essential about Bree that nothing else in the film does. A group of powerful men discusses a missing person's case; Klute is the rube at the table. We know because, in a brief shot, we see that though he's wearing a suit, he's also wearing white sweat socks, visible as his slacks ride high up on his calves.