A character piece disguised a thriller, Klute has so many extraordinary elements that it’s silly to complain about the movie’s shortcomings. For while Klute is not particularly effective a whodunit, it soars as a probing investigation into the sexual identity of a complicated woman. Klute is also a great mood piece. The picture earned leading lady Jane Fonda the first of her two Oscars, and it’s the project on which director Alan Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis perfected the visual style they later used on two classic conspiracy-themed films, The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). In fact, Klute is often cited as the first entry in a trilogy comprising Parallax and President’s, because themes of duplicity, paranoia, and surveillance pervade all three films.
Set in New York City, Klute concerns the search for a missing business executive from the Midwest. Laconic heartland cop-turned-PI John Klute (Don Sutherland) travels to the Big Apple to look for the missing man, and his best source of information is call girl Bree Daniels (Fonda). As John pressures Bree for information, the movie examines her intricate personality. Pakula features several insightful scenes of the call girl speaking with her therapist, and it’s fascinating to watch Bree waffle between justifications (exercising sexual power over men validates her self-image) and recriminations (for her, prostitution is a sort of addiction).
As carefully sculpted by Fonda and Pakula—who presumably used the script by the otherwise undistinguished writers Andy Lewis and David P. Lewis as a jumping-off point for elaborations and improvisations—Bree Daniels is one of the most textured characters in all of ’70s cinema. Among the unforgettable moments during Fonda’s scorching performance is the bit when Bree seems to experience a massive orgasm with one of her clients—until she “breaks character” by checking her watch. Truth be told, Klute almost delves too deeply into Bree’s personality, because the unveiling of her soul pushes the actual plot of the movie into the background. Even Sutherland, very much Fonda’s equal as a performer, falls into his costar’s shadow.
Nonetheless, Pakula occasionally remembers that he’s making a thriller, and the movie features a handful of strong suspense scenes. Especially during these fraught moments, Willis uses deep shadows to convey a sense of ever-present danger; the artful silhouettes he creates during the climax are particularly memorable. Actually, it seems that nearly everybody involved with Klute treated the project like high art, thereby elevating what could have been a pulpy story into something special. For example, supporting players including Charles Cioffi and Roy Scheider give their small roles depth, and composer Michael Small adds to the ominous mood with eerie musical textures.