Jane Fonda will be honored this month with the American Film Institute’s 42nd AFI Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala event in Los Angeles. In tribute to Fonda, AFI is showing a retrospective of her works. This week at the AFI Silver Screen Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, MD (a Washington, DC suburb) I sat in its smallest theatre to watch my favorite Fonda film, KLUTE, the 1971 mystery/thriller for which Fonda won an Academy award for Best Actress.
KLUTE is an enigma. Dark, in its cinematography and its subject matter. A thriller/mystery whose mystery is revealed midway through the film because it is not the ‘who done it’ that is at the heart of this film. At its essence KLUTE is an invitation to witness a lifestyle we would never want to inhabit but piques our curiosity and titillates.
Fonda’s character, Bree Daniels, is an aspiring actress and an experienced call girl. Her three-act plays performed in hotel rooms where anonymous men are her appreciative collaborators. She confides to her psychiatrist that the dalliances with men are better than her acting auditions because in the former she always gets to play the part.
Fonda gives flesh and complexity to her character. She is physically, emotionally and mentally agile in this role with moments of brilliance that are startlingly effective.
Donald Sutherland plays her foil and later protector with a sameness that makes him charming. The word ‘nerd’ had not come into fashion when this movie was made but Sutherland’s character, John Klute, is just that. A moral square from a small Pennsylvania town who is thrust into New York City’s seamy scenes of drugs, prostitution and free love. His straightness is not hypocrisy. He is not like her other John’s. Although Bree manages to seduce him, as she knows she will, his steadfastness is the lure that eventually catches her.
The two other stars of the movie are the cinematography by Gordon Willis and the film’s use of audio. Best known for his work as Director of Photography on the Godfather trilogy, Willis didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his work on this film but he should have. KLUTE is his palette for contrasting scenes of flat color, silhouette and neo-noir realism. Martin Scorsese says of Willis’ work in this film: “There are movies that change the whole way in which films are made, like Klute, where Gordon Willis’s photography on the film is so textured, and, they said, too dark.”
We hear a lot of Fonda’s voice in KLUTE. At the psychiatry sessions, in the acting auditions, in the one-sided conversations her character has with men who call to introduce themselves and set up dates. The murderer in KLUTE likes to audiotape his interactions with women and he seems obsessed with Daniels. We watch the tapes twirl on a small recorder as he listens to her “come hither” chatter over and over, her words inadvertently giving him permission to confuse his acts of violence against prostitutes as free-spirited nonconformity, “…there’s nothing wrong in what you want.” Private Investigator, Klute is also listening after he wiretaps Daniels’ apartment to acquire information that will help him solve what he thinks is a simple missing person case.
In KLUTE we are eager eavesdroppers and voyeurs. Fonda makes us want to watch. She strips off her clothes with deliberate nonchalance. Her seventies bohemian haute couture and bob hair style brings a smile. Her vulnerability in the riveting, minutes-long, close up scene at the film’s climax is powerful. She has become Bree Daniels and we feel her pain.
If this film were made today, Director Alan Pakula would likely elongate the climax by adding slow motion or slowing the cuts and putting more light on the subject to extend the fear. Yet, he makes KLUTE interesting to watch throughout. Sutherland’s pouty lips and placid eyes make him as adorable as a beagle. The panoramic shot of models lined up for a cosmetics casting call is fascinating. Roy Scheider’s easy meditation on pimpdom is at once sexy and dangerous, and fun to watch. The scenes of the late 60’s/early 70’s disco culture are spot on.
Do yourself a favor and give KLUTE a viewing. AFI will celebrate Jane Fonda at its tribute which will be shown this month on both TNT network and Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
DIR/PROD Alan J. Pakula; SCR Andy Lewis, Dave Lewis. US, 1971, color, 114 min. RATED R.