Saturday 22 August 2015

1,001 Films: "Klute" (1971)

Oft bracketed with those dark, adult thrillers that were so in vogue at the start of the early Seventies, Klute surely invites reading as an attempt to take America's pulse: what it found, bleakly if not inaccurately as the conflict in South East Asia dragged on, was that the Summer of Love had given way to more murderous forms of self-expression. Jane Fonda's Bree Daniels is a model-actress by day and a high-class call-girl by night; Donald Sutherland is John Klute, a PI dispatched by a Nixon lookalike sitting behind a desk to track down a missing businessman, last heard from writing dirty notes to the hooker. Bree uses her business acumen to seduce her knight-protector, and the two are joined on a mystery that's almost entirely obfuscated, an obscure subject of desire. Only with the insert of a yellow legal pad an hour and thirty minutes in do we get any sense of the angles Sutherland's working, and only with the playing of a tape in the final moments do we learn what the investigation's actually working towards.

In the meantime, Alan J. Pakula's camera pokes around a succession of underlit, squalid locations, at every turn attempting to isolate the moral rot that had seeped into America's foundations - a metaphor that becomes apparent in the centralising of Bree's apartment building. First Klute must penetrate the darknesses of her basement; then Bree's own flat is subject to a series of defiling intrusions from peepers, pimps and pricks; the final shot, at least, offers some assurance that a much-needed, long-overdue move is on the cards. The film claims a sophistication for itself that's part European - there are surely elements here of Blow-Up (the obsessive study of a recording, an investigation without a body), for one - and part something like Breakfast at Tiffany's (the prostitution, the single gal, her cat). Yet I've always found this is one of those early 70s instances - McCabe and Mrs. Miller would be another - where the deliberate obfuscation, the muddying of generic waters, gets in the way of a satisfying narrative; the neuroses are such it's scant surprise Fonda keeps returning to her shrink, seeking a clarity the film cannot provide for her.

What is clear, however, is that there are two major performances here: they're what keep you hooked, even as what's around them goes in and out of focus. Fonda is mesmerising in one of those roles-within-a-role roles: her Bree is at once a purveyor of fantasies more real than Barbarella (and thus at far greater risk from the fantasies she's selling), a woman finding herself boxed in by men at every turn, and a (proto-feminist?) crusader discovering her braless, let-it-all-hang-out philosophy is at deadly odds with the all-American puritanism that had persisted into the age of Hair and Woodstock. And only in the 1970s could Sutherland attempt a performance as internalised as this in a major studio release: a performance that must have looked dourly uncharismatic, if not entirely blank, in the rushes (has any leading man ever appeared so autistic in his opening scenes?), but makes as much sense over the long haul as a bar-setting technical performance like Gene Hackman's as Harry Caul in The Conversation. Tapes and surveillance will again figure heavily here, but John Klute proves to be the voyeur who comes in from the cold: he goes from looking to loving, lending some redemptive warmth to an otherwise perilously chilly proposition.

Klute is currently unavailable on DVD in the UK.

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