Klute (Alan Pakula, 1971)
After the pure pleasures of reacquainting with a couple of great performances found within two early examples of (quasi-)neo-noir gone haywire – that being the unexpectedly profound and haunting portrayal given by Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson for Seconds and the perhaps less surprising, yet still stunningly executed, presentation of cold primal brutality crashing through the front door by Lee Marvin in Point Blank — it was on to the next dark cinematic entry in the curriculum of my online neo-noir lecture series, namely Alan Pakula’s Klute, a film which, like the two previously mentioned ones, not only showcases a memorable performance from a then leading actor (this time a female one – pardon my old man ways, but, are we allowed to call them actresses anymore?) was also made with an admirable sense of innovation and experimentation.
While Klute may not be as audacious in style as those other two films (none of the wild fish-eyed lens shots or tripped-out expressionistic-style sets like in Seconds, or openly self-reflexive color coordinated production and costume design as in Point Blank), it still does riff in its own way, in a somewhat more downplayed, almost jazz-like fashion (reflected in Michael Small’s eerily sparse yet kaleidoscopic score, a musical style that would grow more commonplace as the decade wore on).
The opening scenes of the film, for instance, that start with a proto-Robert Altman dialogue-overlapping plush dinner sequence that democratically refuses to delineate main characters from narratively unimportant bit players, then moving through sudden, unannounced jump-cuts into the future, Nicholas Roeg-style, to more somber moments at the very dinner table, might be less outwardly bold, yet remains inspired and a nice challenge for the audience (one that, based on the considerable box office results of the film, the audience of that time were amazingly eager to lap up). And while there are a few overt ‘suspense/action’ sequences in the film (Klute’s chase of the rooftop intruder, the final ‘reveal’ of, and violent tussle with, the ‘villain’), these are handled in the editing approach with an almost casual disregard for ‘upping the tension’, or any real concern with providing spatial understandings of the ‘chase’, showing much more concern for creating disconnected sensations and interesting visual motifs (shadowy bodies moving about through dark areas, flashlight turning into the camera, the holder unknown) – sort of what Michael Mann does with his utterly confusing airport airside chase sequence between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro at the end of Heat, only Pakula is doing his on purpose (and with great artistic flair)!
Klute is also an astonishingly gorgeous looking film, shot in the high-contrast low-key style of classic noir, with deep shadows imprisoning our main characters, contained and controlled with the deep sense of assuredness and precise perfection that the great Gordon (the mother-effin’ Godfather movies) Willis brings, topped off with an ornate and elegantly cluttered production design that gives the impression of somehow being both raw (‘real’) and formalistic (‘artificial’) at the same time (a contrast I’d say that describes the film in totality).
To be fair, not all of Klute entirely works. The scenes of Fonda’s prostitute speaking directly, talking-head style, into the camera at her therapist’s office, might have been sensational and daring at the time (especially with the frank statements she makes about sex and her profession), but doesn’t age particularly well. It’s a device well-worn by now, coming across more precious and showy, less avant-garde and exciting. I’m also a bit confused by why the film is named after Donald Sutherland’s Inspector John Klute character, who we learn almost nothing about during his time investigating Jane Fonda’s call girl Bree Daniels, who we spend just about the entire film psychologically breaking down and is the one character who goes through a character arc). Speaking of that arc, Fonda’s decision at the end of the film, leans a bit too towards the conservative side for me (and for Fonda as well, who, even after winning an Academy Award for the role, still questioned whether she should have played a character who ultimately discovers all she needed was a good man and a chance at a traditional home life to have a chance at leaving her dirty little sex work life behind). I find Sutherland downplays a little too much his character’s ‘fish out of water’ dilemma (Klute’s a naïve country boy asked by family friends to investigate a big city sex crime). He seems far too comfortable in the urban surroundings, with only the odd lip service paid to his misgivings about being there. While Sutherland is certainly a watchable actor (the camera likes him well enough), this is one of those roles where he deliberately holds back so much information he seems… well… emotionless (as he did with his role in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but there it made more sense within the narrative). Not empty per se (which is what I think of De Niro when he went too understated), but… unreadable… in a part that could have used more readability.
And then there’s the one element that really doesn’t work… supreme white boy Roy Scheider as the snazzy, jive-talking pimp… eeghads.
Still, Klute, flaws and all, remains another bravura example of the challenging and daring filmmaking that was going on at the time (and that was mainstream no less!). Watching these three in a row (with a ton of great 70’s stuff to come as part of this course) reminded me yet again what a great time in American cinema it was; when the rubber of brash and inspired creativity met the road of the Hollywood system to grant us what is clearly recognized as the last Golden Age in Hollywood cinema.