Actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland and director Alan J. Pakula had respectable résumés prior to 1971’s Klute — which joins the Criterion Collection with a brand-new Blu-ray edition this week — but there’s a clear distinction between the kind of work they put out before and after its release. It’s true that Fonda had previously landed the leading role in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and fronted the otherworldly B-movie Barbarella (1968). And, sure, Sutherland had appeared in Robert Altman’s seminal war comedy M*A*S*H (1970). However, it was Klute that proved to be the genesis for the hardened edge in their respective acting careers. The same could be said for producer-turned-filmmaker Pakula. With just one feature under his belt as director, compared to the six films he’d produced for director Robert Mulligan, Pakula needed Klute to show audiences the kind of grit he was capable of after his eccentric directorial debut, The Sterile Cuckoo (1969). Criterion has a well-known commitment to releasing historically or artistically important films from around the globe, and Klute is a quintessential addition to its library — it’s indispensably groundbreaking and masterful.
Klute’s narrative moves in a lot of different directions over the course of its two hours, but the gist is this: After advertising executive Tom Gruneman disappears, a graphic letter is found in his office that points police to the elusive Bree Daniels (Fonda). Model and actress by day, call girl by night, Daniels is an entrancing femme fatale — yet the case dead-ends when she can’t identify Tom’s photo. That’s when Tom’s boss, fellow executive Peter Cable, brings John Klute (Sutherland) onto the case. Staking out Daniels from the bottom floor of her building, listening in on her calls, and following her throughout her day, Klute is slowly beguiled by this key person-of-interest in Tom’s disappearance. The two eventually converge, working together to follow all possible leads — from Bree’s pimp, Frank (a pre-Jaws Roy Scheider), to some of her fellow call girls — all while evading Bree’s stalker. Although it might sound hackneyed or by-the-book, this loosely structured plot is elevated exponentially by the talent in front of and behind the camera.
As evidenced by Fonda’s Oscar-winning performance, Klute leans much more heavily on monologues and character development than on advancements in the investigation plot. These characters are in search of answers about Tom’s disappearance, but there are plenty of sequences where Daniels and Klute’s relationship and the tension that binds them to one another are far more pertinent than anything else happening in the film. Screenwriters Andy and Dave Lewis seem to have done this intentionally, as several vital plot-related questions never receive answers, even as the film enters its final act. This negative space within the story points to the film’s true nature as a character study.
Klute’s greatest strength is its portrayal of Bree Daniels, a complex female character even by today’s standards and a revolutionary figure for American film in the early ’70s. As an actress and an escort, Daniels is constantly playing different characters, and the film is always examining her choices. What makes this complicated character study even more unprecedented are the multiple scenes where Daniels confides in her therapist — her life is taxing, and therapy helps. There’s a key bit of dialogue early on as Daniels speaks to an important figure in the acting world. She tells him, “I forget myself when I act.” He responds, “You can’t forget yourself. You have to know yourself and kind of like yourself. You have to relate. Relate to people.” This encapsulates Daniels’ struggles. On a larger scale, it summarizes the film.
Beyond being an honest representation of a dynamic female lead, Klute depicts the seediness of New York City in a way that would become synonymous with the 1970s. Pakula’s first entry in what would become known as the “paranoia trilogy” — which includes The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976) — establishes an atmosphere where anything and everything feels 10 times eerier. Even something as banal as an elevator ride — the backdrop for a surprising number of scenes — carries an impending sense of doom. Martin Scorsese’s early films like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) and cult thrillers like Death Wish (1974) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) would build on this sensibility, but Klute lays the foundation for an image the city wouldn’t be able to shake until the Manhattan-set sitcoms and rom-coms of the 1990s. New York City hasn’t always been a place for meet-cutes and lovelorn hijinx — the city was dangerous and violent and squalid, and Pakula wasn’t afraid to put it all on display.
Even with all the grime and the filth, it’s hard to look away from what’s happening onscreen. Daniels taunts Klute at one point: “Did we get you a little? Huh? Just a little bit? Us city folk? The sin, the glitter, the wickedness? Huh?” It’s the ultimate way to describe the feeling of watching Klute, a film that is often literally just watching Klute as he watches Daniels. It’s voyeuristic, it’s invasive, it’s engrossing. Many viewers seemed to echo these feelings in 1971 — Fonda, Sutherland, and Pakula might’ve been established or rising talents pre-Klute, but there’s no denying that their profiles skyrocketed in the wake of the film’s release.
With all these innovative elements considered, it’s no surprise that Criterion chose to give Klute the Blu-ray release it deserves. Complete with supplemental materials like a new interview with Fonda, a short documentary about the locations featured in the film, and plenty of archival footage of Pakula and Fonda from around the film’s initial 1971 release, the amount of attention being paid to this trailblazing feature helps set history straight. Other erotic, anxiety-fueled crime thrillers have borrowed plenty from the film, but no other filmmaker has been able to reproduce the right-place-right-time electricity that Pakula, Fonda, and Sutherland achieved with Klute. Even contemporary thrillers like Se7en (1995) owe a lot to Pakula’s sophomore feature. It’s as if Klute created a genre unto itself. Nearly 50 years later, the lead actors continue to work steadily, while other directors are plainly influenced by the look and feel of Pakula’s film. The film was a lightning strike, and it will never be replicated.