Sunday 8 July 2012

Movie Review: Klute (1971)

Jane Fonda's Academy Award winning performance as call girl Bree Daniels is the life blood of the grim detective drama Klute. Otherwise, the Alan J. Pakula film is dour, dense and a little disoriented.

Pennsylvania businessman Tom Gruneman is missing, and one of the few clues to the events surrounding his disappearance is a salacious letter found among his belongings addressed to Bree Daniels (Fonda), a New York prostitute. When the police investigation gets nowhere, Gruneman's business partner Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi) hires police officer John Klute (Donald Sutherland) to investigate.

In New York, Klute connects with Bree, who is trying to carve out a career as an actress or a model, but doors only ever slam in her face. She is embarrassed by her profession, but is nevertheless drawn to the life of a call girl, enjoying the sense of empowerment she derives from men craving her. Bree regularly sees a psychiatrist, but no amount of therapy is helping to straighten out her life. Bree guides Klute into the dark corners of the New York sex trade, and they track down characters possibly related to Gruneman's disappearance, including her former pimp Frank (Roy Scheider), two other hookers (one a drug addict), and a mysterious violent customer. As they delve deeper and uncover a series of seemingly related murders, Klute and Bree start an uneven relationship as their lives are placed in danger by a merciless killer.

The Klute plot does not stand up to much scrutiny, nor is it ever engaging. The Gruneman character is not made to matter to anyone, and his disappearance is more of a MacGuffin than a source of tension. The mild horror elements are contrived and unconvincing, the repetitive piano tinkling on the soundtrack more tiresome than effective.

The real objective is to explore the psyche of Bree Daniels, and this is where Klute shines. Fonda, with that unforgettable haircut, delivers the performance of her career. Bree is a layered, complex and conflicted woman, both attracted and repelled by her chosen career, unable to connect with men except when she senses their desperate submission to her sexuality.

For Bree, John Klute becomes both a danger and a lover, a man she begins to care about and who can demonstrate a different type of attachment, and Bree finds the potential both thrilling and terrifying. Fonda breaks down into quiet, powerful tears near the movie's climax in a moment of despairing raw emotion, Bree confronting the stark reality about a customer but more importantly confronting her overall life's losses.

If there are reasons why Donald Sutherland is more famous as an engaging supporting actor than a leading star, they are found here. Given the opportunity to star, Sutherland goes through Klute with a single expression of low-key determination mixed with recognition that he is wading in waters much murkier than he is used to. It is an effective but subdued performance, very much leaving centre stage clear for Fonda to shine. Roy Scheider hints at an interesting character as Frank the sleazy pimp, but the role is more truncated than it needed to be.

Alan J. Pakula directs with an eye for unrelenting darkness, Klute drenched in shadows, blacks, browns and dim yellows. There is no glamour in Bree's world, there is no humour in the script, and Klute's journey has discovery but no satisfaction. The New York locations are suitably downbeat, with dank apartments, the dishes always left unwashed.

Bree Daniels is a more interesting character than the movie that she is in, and Jane Fonda's performance of uncommon quality is the one real reason to take a journey to New York City with Klute.

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