As a thriller Klute is only mildly diverting, but it excels as a character study and a vehicle for Jane Fonda’s intelligent, fascinating tour-de-force performance. Fonda received a Best Actress Academy Award for her role, and she absolutely owns the movie.
The title is rather misleading. The film is named after John Klute, a detective played by Donald Sutherland (who I’ve never seen onscreen as a young man before), but the character at the centre of the film is Jane Fonda’s New York call girl Bree Daniels. I guess Klute is a punchier name than Bree?
Bree is not a hooker with a heart of gold. She gets a certain thrill from her profession, where more often than not she’s in control of the situation. An early scene shows her negotiate with a nervous client; while he’s diffident and embarrassed Bree positively radiates sexual confidence. She’s also an aspiring actress, and her imagination and acting skills come in handy with some of her clients, including an elderly garment industry magnate who is content to simply watch Bree disrobe while she regales him with romantic stories set in old-world Europe. There are signs however that Bree is not quite liberated by her call girl freelancing, evident in her sessions with her shrink. The movie also doesn’t have a romantic view of the seedy, violent underbelly of prostitution.
Before we meet Bree, the story kicks off in Pennsylvania, with the disappearance of a high-flying executive who seems to have led a double life. An obscene letter, addressed to Bree in New York, is found in his office, and he may also be the source of creepy late-night phone calls she’s been receiving. John Klute, a friend of the missing man, travels to New York and contacts Bree in an attempt to get some leads. At first she reacts defensively and refuses to talk to him; when he forces her to cooperate she tries to wrestle back the control through the means of seduction. When the creepy phone calls turn to midnight stalking, Bree seeks out Klute’s protection and their relationship eventually takes a more tender turn. This is not however a story where love conquers all, and Bree, who is used to feeling nothing during sex, is hugely ambivalent about her growing affection.
The unusual relationship between Klute and Bree is way more interesting than the mechanics of the plot, though the film makes great use of New York as a claustrophobic setting. I always enjoy modern-day films that recreate the 1970s, but they don’t capture the times quite the same way as the movies that were actually made in the 70s.
I found the casting of Donald Sutherland intriguing; maybe it’s the sheer amount of villain roles I’ve seen him in, but even while playing a good, decent square that Klute is meant to be, there’s something unsettling and off about him. I don’t know if it’s just my Donald Sutherland villain glasses, but it creates an interesting dissonance and makes Klute appear a misfit or in some way damaged. He’s very effective in what amounts to a straight man foil for Fonda’s dazzling showstopper of a performance, but his oddness made me wish we got to learn more about him.