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Case Number 04788: Small Claims Court

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Mr. Klein

Home Vision Entertainment // 1976 // 123 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // July 15th, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Bill Gibron was disappointed to discover that the titular hero of this film is not the acerbic comedian of the same name, but rather some rich French guy.

The Charge

Which Klein am I?

The Case

Robert Klein (Alain Delon, Le Cercle Rouge, The Leopard) is a scoundrel, a well-off antiques dealer who is profiteering from the recent occupation of France by Hitler's Germany. With Jews fleeing daily, Klein pays pittance on the franc for rare and valuable works of art. One day, Mr. Klein, a Gentile, receives a Jewish newsletter by mistake. When he reports the problem, the police inform him that there is another Mr. Klein living in Paris and, apparently, this individual is not very well liked by the "visiting" government. Soon, Klein finds his life turned upside down as he is consistently mistaken for the other man.

Hoping to discover who his named doppelganger is, Mr. Klein plays detective, gathering evidence and seeking out people who know of his double. But as he draws nearer to a conclusion—visiting a group of crass nobles in the country, talking to showgirls who've met "him"—the police and the SS begin to suspect the real Mr. K. When he cannot produce papers securing his birthright, the regime steps in. From then on, it is up to Mr. Klein to straighten out his life, even if it means paying for all the moral crimes he committed against his fellow countrymen, individuals persecuted merely because of their ethnicity.

Fascinating, frustrating, but ultimately a failure, Mr. Klein is a confusing Kafkaesque thriller that uses the Holocaust as a red herring and the Nazi occupation of France as an afterthought. Trying for a World War II cautionary tale, but ending up with a pseudo-New Wave impressionistic morality play, this muddled movie can't quite figure out what it's trying to accomplish. On one hand, it is an obvious French howl of acknowledged cowardice, a mea culpa apology for cooperating with Hitler and the Third Reich instead of fighting to the last man to defend against him. Mr. Klein's crass profiteering suggests the selfish, insular mindset that has haunted his country for decades since. But WWII is only suggested here, with little sign of the occupying forces and even less outside influence among the day-to-day lives of Parisians. You'd never know there was an international battle for the soul of the planet going on around Mr. Klein, both the individual and the film. The movie looks and feels too modern, barely hiding the mid-'70s sensibility in which the production was created.

No one is expecting director Joseph Losey (an expatriate from Wisconsin who sought exile in Europe in 1951 after being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee) to smash us over the head with overt symbols (swastikas, armbands, sewn-on stars). But it would have been nice to acknowledge even the most minor indications of enemy influence. For all we know, the few Nazis we see strutting around could be consultants to Coco Chanel for jackboot fashions. The "Jewish Problem" is only mentioned in passing, and the entire cinematic enterprise has a "far too close to the vest" sensibility to its storytelling. Gaining important information here is like pulling teeth. And this mindset of hinting will hamper the whole film.

The main issue with Mr. Klein is that, as a mystery thriller with a distinct narrative goal to pursue—i.e., the identity of the other "Mr. Klein"—we are never given enough information to play along with the directorial detective work. As a matter of fact, no one in the movie is provided with insight into what is going on. There are hints and innuendo, inferences and occasional direct linkage, but if Sherlock Holmes were this slipshod in his deduction, Watson would have put him out of our misery long ago. Perhaps it was director Losey's desire to avoid the conventions of the traditional who-done-it and dispense with the solution. Instead, we are treated to a never-ending series of suggestions, a few direct false leads and instances where answers appear plastered on people's faces, yet no one dares ask the questions that would reveal them.

There are some filmmakers who like to leave the information open-ended, allowing his or her attentive audience an opportunity to make the case for themselves. But Losey doesn't just give away particular pieces and then ask us to solve the puzzle: he gives us a roadmap to the scavenger hunt where, after several complex steps, the jigsaw can be located. Then he gives us a second set of instructions, in code, on where to find the actual awkward-shaped segments. The result is an exasperating experience in brain teasing, a dull ache behind the eyes, and a diminishing desire to find out what the half-assed Hitchcock is going on. Unfortunately, Mr. Klein never has a final disclosure, a scene where everything is explained and all the half-truths and shattered suspicions are finally gathered together and gone through. We are left with the same queries we began with, and our cheat sheet has ended its two-hour running time.

Maybe the movie is just too existential for a post-millennial audience. Perhaps in the spoon-fed cinema of the 21st century, conditional clues and unanswered questions are no longer acceptable. But it's hard to imagine how Mr. Klein could ever really work. It tries hard, though. Star Alain Delon (who also produced) gives another great, understated performance, his wide-open eyes saying more than his underwritten role ever does. Yet he is not given a single costar who either shares equal screen time with his character or rises up to his level when they appear together. Famed French femme Jeanne Moreau has a couple of quiet scenes with Delon, but then disappears for the rest of the film. From the befuddled high-priced hooker who doesn't know Moby Dick is a whale (I know, there is a joke in there somewhere, but Mr. Klein doesn't make it, so why should I?) to the government official who seems to be simultaneously helping and hampering Robert, Mr. Klein gives off too many mixed messages to make much sense or provide equal entertainment value.

Losey's direction can best be called compositionally gorgeous, but substantively incomplete. The locations and the sets have an opulence and a decadence that really radiates off the screen. Indeed, Mr. Klein is engaging European eye candy, but just like said sweets, it has no real nutritional narrative value. We want to know what is happening, why Alain Delon's Robert is such a sleazy profiteer and why he makes the choices that he does at the end of the film. But Mr. Klein is giving us none of that. And unless you have the mental mantle to watch the movie over and over again with some scrap paper, a pen full of ink, and a sensitive finger on the remote control's pause button, you may never get to the bottom of this baffling motion picture.

At least HVE gives us a glorious transfer, so exquisite in its colors and contrasts that it feels freshly minted. The 1.66:1 anamorphic image is a triumph, adding to the planned mixture of realism and fantasy found in the film. The Dolby Digital Stereo is also very good, even if it is only channeling a previous mono mix. The extras are a little sparse, compromised only of an American trailer (with badly dubbed voices presented on a terribly tinny, compressed soundtrack), selected filmographies for Delon and Losey, and a scholarly essay by professor and critic Edwin Jahiel included in the insert. What this title really needed was an explanatory commentary, a narrative dissertation on all that happens both implied and otherwise in this film.

Mr. Klein may look and play perfectly, but it's not given much of a plot to ponder. And we, as the audience, are left with too many unresolved issues. Who were the people in the country estate? Why did the concierge cover up for "her" Mr. Klein? What was with the ethnicity test at the beginning of the film? Was there a reason Robert wanted his call girl to stay in bed and never get up? And why was she identifying with Ishmael in Herman Melville's literary classic? Why did Mr. Klein decide his fate the way he did? What did it mean and/or did it have any meaning at all? Until you discover the answer to any or all of these riddles, you'll find Mr. Klein a pretty, but perplexing, experience. It's one thing to formulate a film around mistaken identity. But unless you clear up the character conundrum at the end of the film, your efforts will also be in error…and then forgotten.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 75

Perp Profile

Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
Video Formats:
• 1.66:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Foreign
• Mystery

Distinguishing Marks

• U.S. Trailer
• Essay by Film Critic and Cinema Studies Professor Edwin Jahiel


• IMDb

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