Klute (1971)

Klute tells the story of a high-priced New York prostitute who gets pulled into a missing person’s case by a small-town detective. Jane Fonda won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the film, and the film was nominated for Best Writing, Story and ScreenplayKlute is the first installment of what came to be known as director Alan Pakula’s “70’s paranoia trilogy” — the other two films in the trilogy being The Parallax View (1974) and All The President’s Men (1976).

  • Director: Alan Pakula
  • Cinematography: Gordon Willis
  • Screenplay: David E. Lewis, Andy Lewis 
  • Budget: $2.5 million US

Alan Pakula’s take on the American detective thriller, Klute is a hybrid film noir blending a whodunit with hardboiled cynicism and stoic romanticism. Its three main characters all struggle to repress frustrations and insecurities as they each succumb to the pressures keeping private motivations and desires in check. The triangular relationship between the film’s detective (Donald Sutherland), a call girl (Jane Fonda) and a psychopathic criminal (Charles Cioffi) begs the question: ‘Who is this film really about?’ The counter question is, does it matter? Because as in all good film noir, the crimes and characters become convenient means to explore deeper social issues — especially repression, paranoia and anxiety.

Key elements

SOUND — To amplify the noir anxieties being shown on screen, there are subtle disturbances created using disjunction between the sound and the image tracks.  Bree’s pre-recorded voice is layered strategically through the film so that it becomes an aural marker of domestic unrest — and untruth. [Listen during the opening credit sequence after Tom’s infidelity to his wife is revealed — and at the film’s vaguely happy ending where Bree is seen leaving with Klute, as the voiceover tells us something different.]

The audience acquires most of their information about Bree and her story through several audio devices, including her therapy sessions, and the use of her voice on audiotape coaxing a john to perform. At the same time, the visuals on screen work to undermine Bree’s confessions as truthful, rendering her in a more psychologically compromised position.

PARANOIA – While Bree’s interior life is freely laid bare for the audience to witness (“intimately” through her psychiatric sessions), the film’s narrative, aesthetic and three main characters all follow standard film noir conventions. Klute shows people under pressure, and though Bree’s character appears to be in control and liberated, the structure of the film places significant constraints on the female image relative to power. And, it equally constrains the image of its males, in that it can be read as an updated exploration of male paranoia about women, a study of threatened male masculinity and submerged repression.

STANDARD MALE-FEMALE STEREOTYPES – Pakula’s portrayals of his characters follows a typical noir structure, which relies on standard psychological male-female stereotypes to expose anxiety and subjugation. Bree represents the dominant myth of ‘woman’ as ‘the ultimate storyteller’, a tease, and a keeper of hidden agendas. This is in contrast to the comparatively stoic, ponderous ‘male’ (Sutherland’s Klute), treated as (sexually and otherwise) frustrated, cheated, chump-like.

SYMBOLIC REPRESSION – Though Bree’s therapist is female, her sessions are shot in an interview style where the camera is used in static opposition to Bree’s ‘confessions’. There’s a child’s drawing behind her head, and her anxious justifications of her actions suggest she’s an object of an interrogation, someone occupying less power and knowledge than she’s pretending to possess. The mini tape recorder used also symbolizes the patriarchal in that it’s a technical device used to gather evidence and provide meaning – and, it’s operated by a male.

LOOK FOR IT — As you watch the film, examine whether you feel more aligned with the generic (‘patriarchal’) male perspective as represented by Donald Sutherland’s character, or if you feel Bree truly has the power and control she portrays. Who do you trust?

Roger Ebert felt that Klute was not successful as a thriller because “the threat should always be seen from the point of view of the threatened. We don’t like looking over the killer’s shoulder at his victim; shots like that interfere with our desire to identify with the victim and be scared in a satisfactory way.” Do you agree?

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