Sunday, August 22, 2010

Klute (1971, Alan J. Pakula)

It might be hard for some people to imagine, but I grew up in an age before the internet. That's right, you didn't always have any information you could possibly be seeking right at your fingertips, and you certainly didn't have websites dishing out all the news on upcoming films and so forth. In those days, you had to do things like read magazines and books to find out about the things you were interested in. You'd pick up a magazine or a book and pour yourself over it, searching for tidbits of information about some hidden gem you'd never heard of before. New or old didn't make much of a difference because if you were gong to go through that kind of trouble to find something you might like, you took the recommendations you could find.

I made a habit of trying to read interviews with musicians, writers and directors whose work I enjoyed, sometimes actors as well, but that was much less frequent. If they threw out the name of a film, band, album, that they liked, I'd try and get my hands on it.

It was more or less the same principle that led me to see Klute. When it was originally released as part of New Lines Cinema's Platinum Series on DVD, I watched Se7en more times than I can count, and I watched all of the extras, and listened to all of the commentaries on multiple occasions. In the course of one commentary, they somehow got on the subject of films somehow being personally important to you, even if they weren't "important films" in the much larger sense. David Fincher, the director of Se7en mentioned that Klute had been just such a film for him.

David Fincher has since made a slew of films that I've either really loved or really enjoyed. So, I've been meaning to see the film. I didn't want to rush out and buy it though, because I've got to be honest, I've seen some really bad Jane Fonda movies, and I've seen some really bad Donald Sutherland movies, and I was a little skeptical. I wanted to see the film before I even considered picking it up on DVD. I was also not really very excited by the synopsis and the general plot of the film, which I just kept thinking I've seen done so many times before (though sometimes very well) that I could skip this.

Finally, thanks to the film geek miracle that is Netflix, I just finished it via the "Watch Instantly" feature. I wish I'd seen it sooner. DJ (my girlfriend, for those of you who might not know), went to bed and I figured now might be a good time to sit down and give it a look. Having been somewhat skeptical, I didn't want to subject someone else to a crappy movie just because I'm a David Fincher fan.

Here's the quick synopsis: Donald Sutherland is Klute. He's been hired as a private detective to try and find someone who'd been a friend of his, and who disappeared in New York City. Jane Fonda is a call girl to whom the police and the F.B.I seem to think this friend had a connection. Klute leaves rural Pennsylvania (he's hired by the corporation the missing man had been working for at the time) and goes first to try and find out if Jane Fonda has any information. From there on, it's a bit of a mystery, a bit of a thriller and a bit of a character study.

All of the exposition for the film is laid out in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, and from that point forward there is almost no exposition in the dialogue. For a thriller/mystery, that's pretty impressive. Most of the thrillers I've ever seen, new and old, just can't seem to lay off the exposition. They are explaining every step of the way what is happening, what the latest evidence is, blah, blah, blah. There was so little of it after the opening of the film and the set up that I never even noticed it. That's something I can applaud just about any film for.

Also, it was a film at least as interested, if not more so, in it's characters as it was in the thriller/mystery aspect of the story. The character development never feels trite either. It never feels forced or cliche. In another unusual turn, Jane Fonda's role is the one which is most well written and is a full, three dimensional character. She won an Oscar for the role, and I see why, but the fact that she's really the centerpiece of the film and the character was given that much depth definitely gave her something good to work with. Jane Fonda's character is a prostitute, but she's much more a real person than 99.9% of the other films I've ever seen who have female prostitutes as characters. She's screwed up, but she's very human, which is what makes the character so strong. There's not a whole lot of black and white when it comes to her character. Instead, like real people, there's a whole lot of gray areas, a few of which she's navigating with some difficulty. Her characters internal struggle was extremely interesting to me, and given the subject matter of the film, it really shouldn't have been. I was specifically skeptical of the description of the film because I didn't want to see yet another "hooker with a heart of gold, saved by the lucky man" kind of story. She doesn't have a heart of gold, but she's not a bad person or despicable or helpless or stupid. She's just struggling, mostly with herself, and it's handled really well within the film.

Sutherland's Klute, is basically the fulcrum of the film. Klute is the one who shows up and because of what he's doing, everything else in the film happens. He's really superb here. Because his role character isn't as fully developed as Fonda's, everything you get about Klute is in the way Sutherland reacts or doesn't react to things (and it's an awesomely quiet performance, so when he's not reacting to things, it's almost better). It's great that Klute isn't some brash, trash talking detective, like the thousands of other films out there which would be stocked next to it on the shelves. Sutherland gives you a sense of Klutes resolve and determination more by what he doesn't even acknowledge than by anything else. He's just incredibly interesting to watch in this film. You rarely see actors purposely approach roles this way, and he pulls it off beautifully.

The director, Alan J. Pakula, seems to have hit his apex with this film. I'm not even going to get into what else he's directed because other than Sophie's Choice, which is pretty highly acclaimed (though not generally something I'm interested in), his other films seem to have been star vehicles that were pretty standard thrillers. But with this, he does an absolutely perfect job of balancing the tension of the thriller with the character aspects of the script. The story never seems muddled, rushed or slow. Everything is perfectly clear, even with the lack of exposition, and the visual style of the movie isn't awe inspiring, but it's more than adequate. There are one or two scenes in particular from which Se7en seems to have been very directly influenced, and for a geek like me that's always fun to be able recognize.

This isn't classic film work, don't get me wrong. In more ways than not, this should be an extremely cliche, run of the mill thriller. Apart from the performances and the character work in the film, the fact that it pulls off not being cliche and run of the mill is exactly what I enjoy and respect about it. I can see so many different ways that within five minutes I could have been thinking to myself, I've seen this film one hundred times before, and once I started watching it, I never felt that way.

This might not be for everyone. It's certainly a little on the darker side in many ways, and it's not perfect, but it is something worth seeing. It does delve into some of the less glamorous aspects of a life in prostitution, though not in an overtly graphic way. Especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for American films from the Seventies, you shouldn't miss this one. It's also worth seeing because of the degree to which it proves you can take something which could in so many ways be boring, empty headed, run of the mill material and turn it into something more than that. Give Klute a chance at your first opportunity.


  1. The film was in many ways a victim of its time. It did not get the acclaim it legitimately deserved because of Fonda. While the film community gave her an Oscar for her performance, the viewing audience was sharply divided over her position on the Viet Nam war. The better part of the country also had a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around a sympathetic portrayal of a prostitute. Klute falls into the pantheon of highly influential films that were box office duds. It is also remarkable because most of Pakula's films are just egrigious shit, but even a blind pig can find a truffle now and then.

  2. snort snort snort. truffle truffle truffle


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