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New to the Criterion Collection, Klute finds a sharply feminist drama in the shadows of paranoid noir

Photo: Film Forum

The first scene in which Jane Fonda appears in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971) is at a type of inspection point. A row of seats stretch across the screen, each one occupied by a young, impeccably groomed woman. A pair of recruiters take a few seconds to measure up the prospective models. When they arrive at Bree, Fonda’s character, she gives them a slight smile and, at their request, shows them her hands. In the glimpse of a moment, she’s passed by for another eager damsel. She stews in silent frustration until, unsatisfied, they dismiss the girls and usher in a new batch. Before the camera lingers on Bree’s dejected expression, its difficult to single out any one woman. They’re all beautiful and eager to be chosen, their true natures tucked away, having no consequence on whether they will be or not. Any one of them could be Bree, hiding disappointment, trauma, and uncertainty behind a pleasant facade.

Like many a young, independent woman living in New York City, Bree is an aspiring actress and model, but the Big Apple of the 1970s no longer wears the same starry-eyed, shiny veneer—it’s dank and sleazy, a world of “sin, glitter, and wickedness,” Bree, also a sex worker, explains through self-satisfied laughter. A place of sterile hotel rooms and junkie squatters, where pounding disco music and dancehall red lights drown out inner demons. A place where shifty eyes are nestled in dark corners, and the phone rings constantly to no one on the other line. Donning a shaggy, feathered ’do with blunt bangs, a newly brunette Fonda confessed in an interview that her new look made her feel like for the first time like she could walk through the city unnoticed. Despite her coiffure, this claim might seem like a stretch for the soon-to-be Oscar winner. But it’s true that the Fonda of the ’60s, a blonde Barbarella sexpot, is different from the Fonda of the ’70s, whose voice dropped into her natural register and whose anti-Vietnam War activism and feminist awakening marked a shift in her dramatic powers. Originally, Fonda wasn’t so sure she was “call girl material” when Pakula cast her as the shrewd, city-slicking prostitute Bree Daniels, telling him he’d better go find a bombshell like Faye Dunaway. Today it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Fonda as the proxy of modern womanhood that Bree Daniels has come to represent, decades later.

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Pakula’s second film, Klute is the first installation in the director’s “paranoia trilogy,” which also includes The Parallax View (1974), starring Warren Beatty, and All The President’s Men (1976), with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Klute, however, will be the first of his films enshrined in the Criterion Collection, a testament to its lasting resonance as a feminist text and the way it makes palpable the psychological tightrope of womanhood. Gritty, chiaroscuro photography by Gordon Willis gives Pakula’s neo-noir its dingy, hardboiled edge, but peeking through the dark shadows of manly intrigue and underground malaise is the deeply personal story of a woman whose inner life stands out against the dull violence of her surroundings.

Photo: Metrograph

Prompted by the disappearance of oil executive Tom Gruneman, private detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired by associate Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi) to investigate the matter after months of fruitless police work. A small-town man with small-town values, Klute is, if not fully contemptuous of the big city’s seedy charms, at least confidently immune to them. An obscene letter from Gruneman addressed to Bree leads Klute to the part-time prostitute. He sets up headquarters in a basement room beneath her apartment, and manages to secure her cooperation by lording cassette tapes of her racy conversations with clients over her. When Bree attempts to seduce and spellbind him as she so easily does other men, she’s exasperated by his austere resistance.

It’s not just the money that draws Bree to a life of “turning tricks.” It’s the power that comes with knowing herself as an object of desire and wielding that knowledge to her advantage. When she’s ruffled by failed auditions, Bree is compulsively drawn to a payphone where she’s able to connect to a network of nameless, faceless men who are willing to pay and appreciate her performing talents. Disarmed by her confident sensuality and the direct but cheerful manner of her address, Bree’s clients are manipulated into baring their vulnerabilities to a convincingly game, gorgeous woman who encourages them to whisper their sexual whims into her ear.

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Self-sufficient but relatably vulnerable, Fonda’s Bree was heralded upon the film’s release in 1971 as a beautifully imperfect feminist character, a sort of modern everywoman whose disdain for domesticity, and willingness to get dirty to make ends meet, ran counter to the bygone era’s child-rearing housewife. While the film was released at the height of second-wave feminism’s cultural influence, Bree’s purely practical wielding of her sexuality challenges the movement’s rallying cries to liberate feminine pleasure from the mere servicing of men. Instead, Bree’s insistent detachment, and the film’s emphasis on sex as performance, mirrors some cooler contemporary renderings of call-girl culture— the Steven Soderbergh movie turned Showtime series The Girlfriend Experience, for instance.

Klute’s vision of sex work is undeniably white and higher-class. Yet from this point of privilege, it also advances a progressive understanding of sex work as a choice and the body as something autonomous that women have the right to monetize if they so wish. And in a world that promises expanded female freedoms but continues to value women in terms of skin-deep masculine appraisals, the desire to control in what terms you’re desired still speaks to how women today fashion their identities. In any case, Bree’s sex work is not really about her sexual desire, so much as how the enterprising potential of her sexuality can assuage anxieties regarding her self-worth. “Tricking” is no simple yearning for validation in the face of artistic rejection. It’s a defense mechanism, an enactment of a different reality in which she for once holds the cards.

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Just as Bree unearths secrets from her clients, so too does she expose herself in sessions with a female therapist, captured in mostly uninterrupted medium shots like an interrogation. This hybrid quality of mixing the feminine and the personal within the trappings of the detective thriller is what sets Klute apart from other New York City crime fare of the decade. Bree is neither femme fatale nor damsel-in-distress. But against the film’s neo-noir landscape, these character tropes exist as flagpole references for a character study that explores the grey space in between and the resulting contradictions hat define Bree’s character.

What does it mean to show your vulnerability, to seek comfort in others—in other men of all people—in a world unconcerned with the lives of fallen women? Klute correctly suspects that Gruneman is the same client who years ago violently beat Bree in a rendezvous, and Bree carries this survivor’s trauma into her day-to-day, despite playing the hardened, fast-talking vixen on the streets. “I’m a nervous broad” she confesses, antsy and lonely in the private realm of her apartment. When her telephone rings in Klute’s presence, she’s frazzled, perhaps hyper-aware of the impression that her line of work has on a yet untrustworthy man. But it’s also natural behavior for a woman living alone in the city. Part of the gender-specific body of knowledge we develop as women are the precautions we take, like not opening the door to just anyone, as Bree refuses to do in her initial rejection of Klute’s investigative probing.

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Criticized in ’71 for its frank depiction of sex work and drug addiction, Klute looks quainter by today’s standards, merely suggesting the uglier side of things. Prostitution in and of itself isn’t necessarily tragic, nor is it a cesspool of disease or always forced upon women—sensationalized preconceptions towards the profession that haven’t entirely gone away in today’s popular culture, due in part to an increased awareness of human sex trafficking. In preparation for the role, Fonda had arranged to shadow actual sex workers, and to visit the city morgue, where she’d witness body after unidentified body of brutalized so-called immoral women. In a 2005 interview with The Guardian, she explained its impact on her performance, which would go to win her the Best Actress Oscar: “I knew about violence against women but I hadn’t realised ... It had flesh and bones to it now, it had faces.” As Klute and Bree confront other prostitutes from Bree’s past that might be able to identify Gruneman, she is taken aback by the violence that befalls them. As prostitutes and junkies, they’re killed and swiftly forgotten: “It could’ve been me,” she declares solemnly to her therapist, realizing the precarity of her lifestyle but also keenly aware of the patriarchal malice that makes it unjustly so.

But what becomes as equally distressing to Bree as the threat of the individual stalking her is a budding romance with Klute. Falling in love is not just a bad idea but a dangerous one, too. “I enjoy making love to him,” she says in therapy, incredulous, stunned by her own emotions and impulses. “But I feel the need to destroy it. I want to go back to the comfort of feeling numb again and in control.” At the conclusion of their first sexual tryst, Bree cannot help but sabotage the tender moment by brushing off its significance in the way she often internally mocks her clients: “Are you upset because you didn’t make me come?” she quips and rushes up to the cold haven of her apartment.

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Photo: Alamo Drafthouse

At risk of losing her hard-fought economic and personal freedoms, and capitulating to the emotionally risky pull of romance, Bree goes on a self-defeating streak, which she enacts by leaning into her purely transactional relationships. “Tricking” is all about manipulating the opposite sex and capitalizing on their sexual whims, and for Bree it’s a way of sticking up her middle finger to the patriarchy and harnessing men’s desire to stabilize her own. When the mystery man trashes Bree’s apartment, she defiantly turns to her old pimp (Roy Scheider) for support, preferring to remain in a skeevy tit-for-tat relationship than submit to the messy vulnerability of a life with Klute. Later, in a time of crisis, Bree rushes to a gentle client when her therapist is unavailable. (Not incidentally, the doctor-client relationship is also one that’s rooted in money, rather than love.) Though he isn’t a monstrous man, this client assumes Bree is only in it for the cash when she urgently calls him asking to talk, and when she arrives at their usual meeting place, she’s met with an envelope full of money rather than a shoulder to lean on. It’s a kind gesture from one perspective, but one that also reveals a terrible emptiness to Bree’s reliance on tricking, which for her is a substitute for the professional fulfillment of an acting career and a a barrier against precarious but potentially meaningful relationships with other men.

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Nearly 50 years since it premiered, Klute still offers relevant feminist considerations about what it means to want to be an object of desire while also lashing out against the people and the patriarchal system that only values you as such. It’s a fine line that modern women must walk, wanting love and autonomy. In the final scene, we see Bree’s apartment emptied out. Her bags are ready to go and so is her lover, prepared to whisk her away to a protected life of domesticity. Bree falters. There’s an evident romance to the scenario, of Bree finally allowing herself to be vulnerable and to be cared for, in a way she has perhaps never allowed herself to be before. It’s love as a leap of faith. And yet, there’s also something pointedly melancholy, even defeated, about Bree’s apartment, emptied of the bric-a-brac: the jewelry, the artwork, the lingerie strewn about that defined her in all her ferocious... her-ness. Klute ends not on a note of happily-ever-after but of change and uncertainty as they exit the room and the camera lingers on the empty space through the end credits.


Klute is available now on Criterion Blu-Ray.

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