The fear that comes with living in the city is unique: there is paranoia, claustrophobia, an insidious kind of loneliness. It’s easy to get lost, to feel invisible, to imagine being reduced to a case file. A missing person, a polaroid with a number instead of a name, belongings in a municipal storehouse: a bracelet, a rabbit’s foot, a faded snapshot of a child, a letter. The denizens of the city peer out at each other through peepholes in closed doors, their images distorted. They watch each other, listen, anonymous, at a distance. They chase dark shadows into darker corners, uncertain why, finding nothing. And that is the mystery at the heart of Klute — the mystery of identity, of our hangups and flaws and compulsions, the masks we wear and what lies beneath, how the city disfigures us and warps human connection. Klute holds up a magnifying glass to our notions of how well we know each other and ourselves.
Klute was one of the first paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, but it stands apart, preceding and seemingly presaging Watergate, the source of its unease hard to pinpoint: like Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes, released just a week before Klute, it dealt with covert surveillance and wiretapping. There was good cause to be anxious in the ‘70s: the Cold War, second-wave feminism, the sexual revolution, Vietnam, police corruption scandals, crowded cityscapes, the violence of the late 1960s. Maybe Watergate served as a lightning rod for a diffuse preexisting paranoia, let us give it a name and a reason — and Klute is one of the earliest articulations of the era’s uncertainty.
John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is a policeman whose best friend, businessman Tom Gruneman, has gone missing. When detectives come up with nothing, he’s hired by Tom’s boss Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi) to investigate. Klute’s intent is honorable: “He’s interested, and he cares.” He journeys from the countryside, a world of sunlight and open space and Thanksgiving dinners with family, into a seemingly subterranean city, its denizens constrained, alienated, isolated to the point of terror, like caged animals. His investigation leads him to Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a call girl who received anonymous, threatening letters from a john who may have been Tom. Screenwriter Andy Lewis knew that Klute’s focus is Jane Fonda’s character, but didn’t want to call it “Bree” because “some critic is going to say it’s a hunk of cheese.”
In an interview with the American Film Institute, director Alan J. Pakula said he would not have made Klute without Jane Fonda. She was terrified of the role, believing she was completely wrong for the part, that she didn’t understand it. But Pakula knew she could do no wrong, and she improvised all her dialogue with her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan) — Pakula described the results of Fonda’s and Nathan’s improvisation: “There was no way of directing that, everything pouring out, and then we ran out of him. Nobody talked. We just reloaded and went on.” Her character is the center of this story, she creates the plot, her compulsions predict its end. Pakula described it as “a melodrama in which the girl’s tragic flaw nearly destroys her.” He explained: “I’m fascinated by compulsions, by bright, rational people who behave in ways they can’t control.” Bree’s tragedy is that it’s who she is, her psychology that determines her fate, and she is powerless to stop it.
Klute’s tension and claustrophobia is intensified by Michael Small’s giallo-inspired score; New York City itself, a city made suffocating, predatory; and Gordon Willis’ cinematography, his use of flat space. In Willis’ “very nervous compositions,” there’s vertigo, a sense of everyone being off-kilter. Bree’s place was a real call girl’s apartment that art director George Jenkins transformed. Fonda helped decorate it, making the apartment look only half-finished, a place Bree hadn’t quite committed to — using a shawl as a canopy on the bed, hanging a photograph of John F. Kennedy on the wall because the call girls she met with all had one, even staying in the apartment for three nights. Pakula explained: “We turned it into this long, unfinished tunnel, this big, endless, disturbing, subterranean studio room. I wanted a sense of being trapped in space, of being caught.”
We watch Bree through windows, a subject under our surveillance, viewed through a pinhole camera. She lives in a rooftop apartment next to a funeral home, and her building’s elevator is like a cage, her face obscured by the grate. She’s introduced to us in a lineup of pretty girls being considered for a cosmetics ad, but the casting directors exclaim that she has “funny hands.” By contrast, when Bree meets with garment-factory owner Goldfarb (Morris Strassberg), Pakula told Willis, “That entrance should be just like Von Sternberg photographing Dietrich.” There’s no sexual contact with Goldfarb, she only plays dress-up for him, tells him stories. It’s maybe the warmest, most romantic scene in the film, a moment where she becomes Scheherazade and gets to feel important, finally appreciated as an actress. Otherwise Bree is a woman hemmed in by darkness, oppressed by it, sometimes the only thing we can see in the frame.
Peter Cable is the perfect antagonist for Bree’s story, a roughly-sketched character, a shadow, a stranger. He is a psychopath and a sadist, shot by Willis in his grayscale office like a dead thing pinned under glass. Cable himself is responsible for Tom’s disappearance: Cable murdered him after being caught killing Jane McKenna, a prostitute. Cable was once one of Bree’s johns, but Bree remembers him only as a “dumper,” a man who likes physically hurting women. To Cable, all women “make a man think that he’s accepted” and prey on their sexual fantasies, and he perceives Bree as the woman who gave him permission to “let it all hang out,” to let his compulsions run free, who made him fully aware of his weaknesses, his sickness. He recorded her words and replays the tape obsessively. He makes breather calls. He stalks her. He is dangerous, an unhinged man who wears a mask of total control. Cable personifies the threat of the city, but Klute is the country rube. He believes the sin, the glitter, the wickedness of the city is “pathetic”. Pakula described John Klute as a “Frank Capra, Mr. Smith kind of character,” a man who is quiet, decent, repressed. Klute is Bree’s counterpart, the male version of her according to Pakula — they both fear losing control.
Cable and Klute embody two impulses at war in Bree: the tension between wanting love and wanting autonomy. If Klute represents her desire to be loved, accepted, and safe, then Cable is her desire to hate herself, to disappear, to self-destruct. Both men are frightening to Bree, who yearns to be “faceless and bodiless, and be left alone.” They threaten the safety of the anonymous life she’s established, intruders in her already claustrophobic world. Cable is an obvious threat, but Klute introduces real intimacy into Bree’s life, and that feels dangerous, frightening. She doesn’t wear a costume with him. He destroys her illusion of control over herself and others. As someone most comfortable as someone else’s fantasy, an actress, nothing is more terrifying for her than being seen, and Klute is the first person to see her.
Cable and Klute are faced with their own dilemma: how will they deal with their threatened masculinity, their uneasy feelings toward women? Cable kills three people, tries to kill a fourth, and then jumps out a window because he can’t get past it. Klute survives because he gets over it. Pakula explained: “[Klute] falls in love with somebody who is everything he despises, and it breaks open his whole comprehension of human experience. [ . . . ] He has to learn compassion for the complexity of the human condition, and he gains some realization about his own complexities.” According to Pakula, Klute becomes “a more compassionate and emotionally alive human being.”
In Andy and Dave Lewis’s original screenplay, Klute proposes to Bree at the film’s end. She claims that she’ll tear his heart out, that he knows the things she can do, and he counters, “They don’t scare me anymore.” Pakula and the Lewis brothers felt like this was too much of a happy ending and gave Klute a more ambiguous conclusion, though one that still leans toward optimism. Although we don’t know what comes next for them, for now, Bree is safe, leaving the city, and Klute is with her. In Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear, Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds sit in a WWII bomb shelter during an air raid, and he tells her: “I wonder if you realize what it means to stand all alone on a dark corner knowing that somewhere one person is coming towards you to help.” Klute is a film about this feeling. And like all mysteries, Klute is fundamentally about seeing people for who they really are. It’s a character study, and the study of an archetype: the femme fatale. But Klute offers a more hopeful vision for Bree than her noir predecessors: she doesn’t self-destruct, and she doesn’t call Klute to his destruction; instead, they humanize each other in a city seemingly without humanity.