Klute: Actually, It’s All About Bree


When Jane Fonda started preparing for the role of a self-assured and sexy prostitute in Klute (1971) she became convinced that she was simply not attractive enough and told the filmmakers to hire her friend Faye Dunaway instead. This idea that she had probably illustrates a deep-set lack of confidence that should have been more of a problem for the movie than her body. In the end, though, Fonda is a pro who delivered a performance that has become one of her strongest, one that outshines certain other aspects of the film.

When a businessman called Tom Gruneman disappears, the police find an obscene letter in his office addressed to a prostitute in New York City, Bree Daniels (Fonda). Unfortunately, the investigation leads nowhere and Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), who worked with Gruneman, hires a family friend and police officer called John Klute (Donald Sutherland) to do a little research on his own. The only lead Klute has is Daniels and he starts following her around and listens in on her phone calls.

When it doesn’t look like that she has any secrets, Klute decides to approach her. Bree tells him that she doesn’t remember Gruneman, nor does she recognize his photo, but there was a john a few years back who beat her up. There were other hookers with similar experiences. When one of them turns up dead, Klute thinks he’s on to something…

Genuinely creepy setting
This was director Alan J. Pakula’s breakthrough picture, one that is sometimes lumped together with The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976) as part of a “paranoia trilogy”. Bree has the feeling that she’s being observed and we in the audience learn that Klute’s not the only one who’s watching her. Thanks to Gordon Willis’s moody, dark cinematography, tension remains high throughout the film – which is actually a kind of feat, because when the killer’s identity is revealed it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. A great mystery this ain’t. But Pakula and Willis still achieve what they’re aiming for on account of sheer technological know-how. The final showdown may be obvious, but its setting in New York’s garment district is genuinely creepy because of the way it is directed, lit, shot and edited.

Another key ingredient is Michael Small’s music score, which has an eerie, dreamy quality, both as illustration of Klute and Bree’s love affair and the stalking sequences. This is also obviously Bree’s story as her visits to a shrink and the encounters with very different johns tell us a lot about who she is; Fonda brings depth to the character. Why the movie is named for the male protagonist is a mystery, but it’s typical of how Bree in the end has to be rescued by him, even though she should be strong enough to take this killer down on her own.

On Oscar night, Fonda’s speech simply stated that “there is a great deal to say and I’m not going to say it tonight”. An obvious reference to her struggle against the Vietnam War, Fonda knew when to pick her battles. She certainly had courage, though, and overcoming her fears to play Bree is a sign of that.

Klute 1971-U.S. 114 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Alan J. Pakula. Screenplay: Andy Lewis, Dave Lewis. Cinematography: Gordon Willis. Music: Michael Small. Cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider, Dorothy Tristan, Rita Gam… Jean Stapleton. 

Trivia: Barbra Streisand was allegedly considered for the lead role.

Oscar: Best Actress (Fonda). Golden Globe: Best Actress (Fonda). 

Last word: “It was the story of a girl who’s obsessed with seducing. She feels impotent, herself. The only time she feels any sense of power is when she’s sexually in control and knows a man wants her in a way she doesn’t want him. It’s this need to seduce that almost kills her. So I said to Michael [Small], ‘How can we express this in the score? I want her pulled in, as though she is pulling herself toward her own destruction.’ We’re talking about a siren song.  He said, ‘Then we should use a woman’s voice.’ There’s a sick voice, like her own voice, pulling her forward, and it’s threatening, endangering.” (Pakula, AFI)


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