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“Klute” (1971): An introduction to paranoia

Michael Mollicone

Business Manager

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“Klute” really isn’t about Klute all that much. In reading any synopsis, you’ll find that the story follows John Klute, played by Donald Sutherland, a clean-cut suburban cop who gets mixed up with the seedy New York underground in search of his missing friend. A trail of obscene letters and cryptic phone calls lead to suspicion that the missing man is stalking a woman in the city. This woman is Bree Daniels, played by Jane Fonda, an upscale call-girl who has seen her fill of the dirty underworld which has left her a shell of a person. Using Bree as a mechanism to find the suspected peeping Tom, Klute conducts a dead-end investigation while also becoming emotionally threaded into the woman’s life.

Now stop right there. The synopsis, as many will describe it, only lends to a small fragment of the narrative within “Klute,” for the film finds itself less interested in the mystery and more interested in Daniels. Klute’s investigation is merely a plot device that chugs the story along its tracks. Any viewer could tell you that the true heart of the movie lies in Fonda’s outstanding role. Thriller motifs come as a trojan horse, surprising the audience with a complex character study as the true focal point. Director Alan J. Pakula even goes to the lengths of revealing the villain after 40 minutes in order to show his distaste for the cheap noir.

So, who is Daniels? Why is she more captivating than a detective story? Daniels is a self-destructive, powerhouse whose sanity is continuously teetering into unstable territory. She has dreams of becoming an actress, but struggles to land any roles, bouncing from poor interview to worse audition. These attempts at fulfillment flutter by and dissolve only weakening her spirits further.

One year before the film’s events, she was a full-time call girl living in a lavish apartment with gaudy clothes and accessories. Now, as the four walls of her studio residence narrow, the clothes and jewelry are the only fragments of past luxury she can hold onto. Even still, Daniels will perform her façade and take calls here and there for money and most importantly: Recognition. During one of several psychiatrist visits, she explains, “for an hour I’m the best actress in the world.” She plays the role of the sex worker, always with sleazy, timid, family men in her palm. In one scene she comically breaks the act by checking her watch in the midst of making love. Attention she receives from these men always feels more rewarding than the constant failure of following her potential.

Now, take the damaged Daniels and throw in her complete foil, that honest cop Klute. Everything from their values to their careers and upbringing is completely opposite. But a force still connects the city call girl and the country-boy policeman. Although Sutherland’s character attempts to maintain his professionality on the case, using Daniels only as needed, he finds himself unable to part with her. An innate compulsion to protect the woman takes over him, and he appears to crack out of his stiff shell. The bond between the two characters is the main conflict within the film.

Pakula cleverly handles the relationship between Daniels and Klute. Klute wants to protect Daniels and give her a sense of normality and fulfillment. On the other hand, Daniels fears the feeling of attachment and subconsciously tries to destroy the love she feels for Klute. After being numb for so long, Daniels is most comfortable feeling nothing at all. Still however, the two fail to rid themselves of the other, and just as they falter, another mysterious phone call will ring or another set of footsteps will be heard creeping over their heads, snapping the mystery back into frame.

Although simple, the thrills in “Klute” still successfully strike tension and fear within the viewer. There isn’t much of a mystery after the stalker’s identity is revealed, however the eerie cinematography consistently offers a haunting feeling of being watched. Even the chilling soundtrack could be mistaken for something out of a Dario Argento film.

Klute and Daniel’s investigation for the missing man is rather linear, taking them from one pimp to another. Daniels is forced to face her past as they plunge deeper and deeper into the underground, heightening her inner tensions. Fonda is absolutely incredible at portraying such a powerful, layered personality like Daniels. In scenes where she converses with her shrink, Fonda mainly improvised her lines. In addition to this, she prepared for the role by spending a week with prostitutes and shady characters in the city, also sleeping in her character’s apartment set, with a working toilet thankfully.

Sutherland was not used to his fullest potential, however he should be commended for his restraint. He successfully gave power when needed and receded as Fonda’s character was in focus. Overall, Pakula’s first installment for his acclaimed Paranoia Trilogy encompasses not only a chilling noir, but a complex look at two beautifully written characters. I highly recommend giving this a watch.


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