Don't feel bad about losing your virtue. I sort of knew you would. Everybody always does.
Bit by bit studios like Warner Brothers and MGM are opening up their vaults and letting various classics from different time periods out into the digital world. So it is with open arms that I welcome Alan J. Pakula's (All the President's Men) 1971 classic neo-noir romance, Klute. The disc could have been more feature laden, especially considering the quality of the film, but taking into account the $15 price tag, well, I'm still sitting here wishing there was more to it.
Facts of the Case
Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda—Julia) is a New York prostitute who was savagely beaten once by a man Pennsylvania. Detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland—Panic) thinks the man may have been one of his best friends who has disappeared without a trace. Coming to New York, Klute looks to Daniels to help him find his friend. Taking a journey into the underbelly of the Big Apple the two begin to realize that everything and everyone may not be what they seem. Dangers lurk in the shadows, old habits become harder to break, and love is a four letter word best left unspoken for two people from two very different worlds.
It's no secret that I harbor a serious amount of affection and admiration for the Hollywood films coming from the 1970s. In many ways it was Hollywood's second golden age and the single most creative period the studio system has ever seen. I could chat for hours about my favorite films from that decade, but one film that always eluded me from a respect standpoint was Alan J. Pakula's Klute. I had seen it once or twice on cable and maybe once on VHS. I always thought it be a too little sterile, that Fonda was a little too self-absorbed, and Sutherland a little bit too much of a stiff for their partnership to have any real meaning. So why do I sit here now thinking it is one of the true classics from a classic filled period?
Well, maturity for one. I have come to understand that thrillers don't really have to be nailbiters to be effective. Thrillers don't even have to be exciting. Sometimes it's the little things that happen or don't happen that heighten suspense. It's the way a movie works its way around the brain, twisting things so that what one believes may or may not be the case. It's watching characters we have come to care about move in directions that we disagree with. It's about choices and trying to live a life without a guidebook. It's the feeling of moving blind through a world that can hurt us that generates a sense of unease or paranoia. Klute is about a lot of things, and paranoia is right at the top of the list. Part of the fun, if you can all it that, of this movie is trying to decide what is paranoia and what is really and truly dangerous.
The more Klute weaves its web and for as much as it may appear to be one, Klute is not really a thriller at all. As written by Andy and Dave Lewis, Klute may certainly be built like a thriller, scored like a thriller, and acted like a thriller, but there is a lot more going on than mere thrills. No, Klute is more a character study of two lonely people and the romance they find with each other while they were not looking. Klute is also a movie that painfully shies away from stereotypes and from pat resolutions. The ending for Klute is, like so much of real life, deliberately ambiguous. In fact, it was this sense of the uncertain that was a key element to the zeitgeist of the American cinema in the 1970s. I look at a lot of films from that period and I see for the first time in its history American film joining the world stage. Look at it like this—change the city from New York to Paris and I can easily see the film being directed by Clouzot, Dassin, or Truffaut. Go east to Tokyo, and Kurosawa could have produced an amazing film during his hard-boiled period. This is not to say that Klute by any of these other directors would have been the same film, but rather for the first time in its history the American film industry was shifting and starting to assimilate aspects of the tonality of foreign cinema. Endings did not have to be endings, but rather different beginnings. Things could be left open to interpretation, to discussion. It was an exciting time and looking back, Klute was at the forefront of this movement.
Moving beyond the cultural aspects of Klute we find, in a justly deserved Oscar winning performance, Jane Fonda's Bree Daniels is most certainly not the standard hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold nor is she a cold hearted bitch. She is, rather, somewhere in between. Fonda gives an intense, realistic portrayal that is always rooted in the world around her. Her striptease opening in Barbarella may have been her breakout part, but her role in Klute was the one that announced she had arrived. It is rare to see a performance that possesses such texture and so many levels, but there it is. In many ways I think this is the Jane Fonda performance and one she never really equaled.
On the other side of the coin, Donald Sutherland's title character is not the standard gumshoe of film lore either. He is a thoughtful, quiet man who silently makes little judgments of Bree and her world. He is very much the knight on the quest. Yet, in the beginning, his reason for being there, his quest, is not to save the princess, at least not yet. Rather, he is hunting for his friend because of a sense of responsibility and because he was his friend. The fact that Bree needs saving is not something she would be willing to admit, but that she comes to understand it and appreciates what Klute does for her speaks volumes for the journey she takes and where she may end up. From a performance standpoint, Sutherland has the more difficult role of the two leads. He needs to be somber, yet also a little naïve. Part of his arc is very much the standard "fish out of water" routine, but like so much else in the film it is a convention that serves as a starting point to grow to different and unexpected levels. Still, with everything presented to him as a character, Sutherland lets his John Klute remain focused and steadfast. The performance is a lot like Pakula's direction: economical, matter-of-fact, and full of quiet surprises.
Looking deeper, I have come to realize that one of the big things that opened my eyes to the world of John Klute and Bree Daniels is that for the first time I was able to view the movie in widescreen format as it was originally intended. Anybody who thinks or tries to pan and scan a movie shot in 2.35:1 should have their eyes removed, especially when that 2.35:1 canvas is being shot by the great Gordon Willis (The Godfather). Opened up to its original aspect ratio, the movie truly comes alive. The city becomes the player in this little drama that it was always meant to and Klute ceases to be about one character or the other, instead becoming a film about two people. Compositions are allowed to breathe and things that were missed with part of the picture chopped off reveal themselves to be integral parts of the tone and poetry of the film. Like The French Connection, the film was made using that quasi-documentary feel that was coming into vogue in American cinema. Thus, like the city at the time, the film has a rough, dirty, almost decayed feel to. It's a feel that the anamorphic transfer does a good job of recreating. If the image has any real problem it is with the source material. It is a master that shows enough nicks, dirt, and the expected film grain to be noticeable. Klute is a dark film and the transfer does a good job with those aspects of the production. Blacks are solid throughout the movie with contrast being of good quality. Detail may be on the soft side but that is keeping with Gordon Willis' cinematography. Colors and flesh tones both appear natural and with a certain degree of warmth.
Sound is Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and what you would normally expect from a mono mix is present. There is a lack of fullness to the mix with certain sections sounding pretty thin. Yet it's a clean sounding track with good attention paid to the dialogue. This really is one of those cases where I thing a 5.1 remix could have opened things up and given us an aural aspect that could have matched the visuals.
For special features we are given a short 8mm featurette produced at the time of the film's production and a truly awful trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Klute is a fairly major film and it's a shame that Warner Home Video chose to give us such a bare bones release. To look around and see what other studios do for their catalogue titles and what Warner has done for movies like Citizen Kane, it just makes the lack of extras all the more bitter. I'm really not asking for much. A nice little retrospective documentary would have been great, something to show today's audiences what was so different and special about movies like Klute. If you read a lot of DVD reviews like I do, it is easy to see how people judge yesterday's films in today's context. The production of a film is a product of its time; whether or not the film transcends its time is the sign of great movie. So to look at a comedy like, say M*A*S*H and to judge it by the current gross-out movie standard does the film a grave disservice. Is it funny in today's terms? For a lot of people, probably not. Yet is it funny in its own way? I think so. Was it different and groundbreaking in its day? Yes. Does the fact that it opened the door for a whole generation of socially relevant comedies to emulate it dilute the fact of what the original was and tried to be? I would argue no. The same goes with something like Klute. It is like my favorite quote from The Abyss. "You have to look with better eyes than that." On the surface, Klute is a dated movie. The language, the fashions, the social content all scream retro. Still, a movie that offers such beautiful acting, such well considered direction and such taunt writing is a movie simply asking to be considered on its own terms.
Great films have a way of sneaking up on a person. They announce their presence not in a showy way but rather in the moments after the credits have rolled and a person is left sitting there considering what was just watched. Great films beg to be watched again. Klute is just such a movie. One of the highlights from the 1970s, Klute turns out to be a film for the ages. I really wish there were more in the way of special content but for under 20 bucks this disc is still a steal. Highly recommended.
It is not perfect, but I'm thrilled to own Klute in all its widescreen glory. While the bench wishes Warner would be a little more aggressive in both the volume with which their classics are released and in the care given to them, it is hard to deny the goodwill generated by the accessibility of the these discs because of the reasonable price point. I will go the half full route and acquit Warner Brothers and Klute of all charges. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• 1971 Behind-the-Scenes Documentary: Klute in New York: A Background for Suspense
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