Category: Alan J Pakula

Klute (1971)

Klute (1971)

Paranoia runs rampant in this fascinating – and chilling – murder thriller that taps into into conspiracy thrillers

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist), Morris Strassberg (Mr Goldfarb)

There is one question everyone asks when watching Klute: why the heck is it called Klute? Would calling the film Daniels have been too dull? Would Bree have made it sound like a history of cheese? Klute is dominated by its character study of Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels, split between her desire to be an actress and the comforting sense of control and avoidance of intimacy her work as call-girl brings. Klute uses the conventions of the male detective movie to conduct a sympathetic, compassionate character examination of its female lead. Match that with Pakula discovering his affinity for creeping 70’s paranoia, and you’ve got one of the most interesting and rewarding films of the decade.

John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is a small-town cop called in as a private investigator after a six month New York police investigation fails to find his friend, businessman Tom Gruneman. The only lead they have is a series of obscene letters found in Gruneman’s office written to New York call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Klute discovers Bree has no memory of Gruneman, but Klute believes she may be in serious danger. Together they investigate the crime further, which becomes more and more focused on a mysterious abusive client and even more complicated by the growing relationship between the quiet, reserved Klute and the strong-willed, independent Bree.

Klute uses the conventions of a gumshoe detective movie, spliced with a hard-hitting 70s fascination with grimy, sensationalist crimes (this was the same year as hard-bitten, shades-of-grey cops in Dirty Harry took on a serial killer and The French Connection explored the drugs trade), in this case the assault and murder of prostitutes. But this isn’t a whodunnit, or even really a detective story. The film is barely 45 minutes old before Pakula basically reveals who the killer is (the suspect list has only two people on it in any case). Most of the investigation takes place off screen. Some answers are kept vague. There is no cathartic moment of success.

Instead, the film feels far more like it’s using its Laura-ish set-up (the big difference here being the taciturn detective’s love interest is alive rather than just a painting) as a backdrop to deep dive in Bree’s personality. Bree is played with a stunning (and Oscar-winning) verisimilitude by Jane Fonda. Fonda immersed herself totally in the character, even living in the apartment set during shooting (Pakula had a working toilet installed) and developing a careful psychological background to Bree that is brilliantly introduced through our frequent cuts to her sessions with a coolly professional psychiatrist.

This is a portrait of a female sex worker on screen, where she’s neither a tragic or pathetic figure, or a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (the standard tropes). Instead, this is a woman struggling with a crippling fear of intimacy and a compulsion to control, who finds a freedom and release in acting out the fantasies of others. Bree speaks to her psychiatrist of being a call girl not as a curse or source of shame, but something she takes a sort of freedom from. It’s clear that really makes her sweat is not adjusting herself to whatever men want (faking an orgasm while checking her watch with one John, or acting out an elaborate, detailed fantasy for a lonely tailor) but the idea of having to be herself, to display something emotional and true.

And prostitution has the advantage over acting as she sets the terms. We are introduced to Bree as just one in a row of sitting actresses auditioning for an advert, each of them dismissively given a score from A to C. She later auditions for Shaw’s Saint Joan with a detailed, heartfelt reading (she’s clearly a good actress) which is stopped mid-speech by a bored director. With Fonda making clear that control is vital to Bree’s sense of well-being, no wonder she struggles with this dismissive world. Or that she finds a greater freedom in high-end prostitution, where we see she sets the terms with a business-like professionalism and is the centre of the focus and attention of her John’s for the whole of their session. This is a feeling she doesn’t get from anyone else.

What really scares her is the thought of a genuine emotional intimacy with Klute. In their first encounters she assumes she can seduce him with the professional ease she does most men, dropping naturally into her role of seductive dream-girl, offering him sex in return for recordings he has of her from his investigation. Later she will prove a point by coming to him in the night and seducing him with a pretence of vulnerability and fear, as if to prove to him (and herself) that she can work out exactly what mood she needs to control any man.

But it’s buried in genuine fear about emotional attachment. To her psychiatrist she talks about not understanding why Klute seems, with no ulterior motive, to be concerned for her safety and well-being despite the things he’s knows about her or that she’s done and said to him.

There is a marvellous scene where the two of them go shopping for fruit (Klute of course knows exactly how to choose the best fruit, he’s that sort of guy). First, she impulsively steals an apple like a naughty, impulsive child. When Klute responds with a bemused half-shock, she stands behind him, a grin spreading across her face, then she lightly rests her head (almost not touching) on his back – then follows him down the street, holding the end of his coat. It speaks worlds of how something in her emotional growth has been slightly stunted somewhere along the line. And the fact this intimacy is followed in the next scene by a drug-fuelled blow-out, speaks volumes of her fear of it.

It’s a brilliant performance by Fonda, throbbing with empathy and emotional complexity. She’s perfectly abetted by Donald Sutherland, who proves himself once again one of the most generous actors in the game. Klute is in many ways the typical rube in the big city, the one honest cop. But he also has a wet-eyed vulnerability, a tenderness and an urge to protect that as motherly as it masculine. He reveals very little emotionally, not from fear but from a shyness.

He’s also an observer. And Pakula’s film partly draws links between detective and voyeurism. Let’s not forget Klute also bugs Bree’s phone and follows her. The camera frequently shoots the action from distance, through windows and looking down on the action: the idea of being constantly observed lingers over the picture, giving it a rich vein of paranoia. The killer listens to disembodied audio recordings of Bree, and these frequently play over the action not only echoing this paranoia, but re-enforcing how her personality is a fractured one between the independent exterior and the less certain interior.

Pakula’s film pulls all this together into something creepy and unsettling but is also a fascinating character study. That is perhaps its best trick. You come into it expecting a film noir or a detective story. What you get is a compelling analysis of the psyche of one woman, who emerges into the picture and takes complete control of it. Perhaps that’s why it’s called Klute – it’s as much a part of the misdirection as everything else. With its psychological complexity and creeping sense of being watched, this would set the tone for many other films that followed in the 70s.

The Parallax View (1975)

The assassination game is grimly played out in Pakula’s groundbreaking conspiracy thriller.

Director: Alan J Pakula

Cast: Warren Beatty (Joseph Frady), Paula Prentiss (Lee Carter), Hume Cronyn (Bill Rintels), William Daniels (Austin Tucker), Walter McGinn (Jack Younger), Kelly Thorsden (Sheriff L.D. Wicker), Earl Hindman (Deputy Red), William Joyce (Senator Charles Carroll), Bill McKinney (Parallax Assassin), Jim Davis (Senator George Hammond), Kenneth Mars (Will Turner)

The 1970s. The decade that made the conspiracy theory popularly accepted. We all love them now – but the 1970s, with its growing disillusionment, was when it first became fashionable to openly question the reality placed before us. The Parallax View is perhaps the greatest conspiracy film ever made, an “experience” movie that captures the mood of the time so well because nothing in it is real, but everything about it feels like it could be real.

The film opens with the assassination of a reforming senator at the Space Needle in Seattle. A senatorial enquiry reports the act was the work of a lone gunman. Three years later, reporter Joe Frady is tipped off that many of the witnesses have been killed in “accidents”. Looking for a big scoop, Frady launches a one-man investigation. This suggests the assassin was someone else entirely, recruited by Parallax, a corporation in the business of identifying and training possible assassins. Or is it? Too late, Frady realises what he has got himself into.

The Parallax Viewis an unsettling, haunting piece of film-making with an impossibly glum view of the world as one where the goodies don’t have a hope in hell. It works despite (because of?) its lack of conventionality: it’s an investigative film where the investigator finds almost nothing out. It’s a tense thriller with no real plot. It tricks us throughout into thinking Frady is completely in control, when he is just a rat in a maze. It’s a film about plot rather than character, but it actually has very little plot as such in it. It’s more like an experience, an immersion in the shady underbelly of America. 

Pakula’s direction is masterfully controlled. Every shot is carefully organised. Every scene builds the complete picture. There is no fat on the film at all: everything we see is relevant. Sequences crackle with tension – most famously, a sequence where Frady finds himself on a plane he knows is carrying a bomb: wordlessly he scrambles desperately for a method to communicate this to the staff. The final sequence at a rehearsal for a senatorial rally is also nearly wordless, but is shot and edited with a relentless inevitability in it, Frady a powerless onlooker.

Warren Beatty gives an intriguing performance as Frady. He isn’t afraid to make Frady slightly unsympathetic: an arrogant loner, nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. His investigation is, when you look at, hilariously ill-prepared and blindly headstrong. He goes up against the system with little more than a complete faith in his pluck and resourcefulness. It’s not enough. Beatty has a cocky hipsterish quality, which only occasionally cracks when he realises he is in over his head. His attitude is summed up perfectly when he is confronted by a drunk cop in a bar: the cop tells him he’s got a hair like a girl; yup, replies Frady with casual defiance and contempt, that’s right I’m a girl. This is more infuriating than any angry retort would be – cue a barfight. It’s a nice, unflashy performance, full of subtle observances, that allows the plot to be the central character.

Gordon Willis was one of the leading photographers of the 1970s and created the visual language of the era’s best films (he also shot The Godfather and All the President’s Men). His photography became synonymous with an impression of the era as one of muddy colours and oppressive architecture, with well chosen streaks of colour throwing these into perspective. His framing throughout the film is exquisite. Events are framed to throw the principal characters into the corners of the frames. Unusual angles show buildings and architecture as oppressive monoliths. Long shots are combined with deep focus to give striking images – my favourite is a long shot from the roof of an air hanger, as a dead man’s golf buggy continues its unguided path, crashing quietly and slowly through tables and chairs. An interesting breakdown of the visual language of the film can be found here.

Sound is also brilliantly used. The score is practically the dictionary definition of spare. Silence is wonderfully used. Background noise dominates several scenes. Life and death events happen silently, lost among the sound of the world around them – whether that be waterfalls, parades or political speeches played over loudspeakers. The effect throughout unnerves and disorientates. It’s all part of the film’s device: the plot is actually extremely simple and the film is a punchy hour and a half. The key thing is the unsettling experience of watching the film, not revelations about our world like in, say, JFK. There is no mystery as such to unravel. Instead we are thrown into this world with no helping hand to guide us through it.

I have to mention the extraordinary assassin recruitment film Frady is brought in to watch by Parallax. It’s a fascinating triumph of editing, a deeply disturbing arrangement of images that slowly switch from positive to negative, subliminally building a message of the need for the individual to take decisive action. I won’t go into all this now – a well-written breakdown of its meaning is here.

And Frady is being tested. His arrogance, his go-it-alone independence, his lack of real relationships or friendships make him (unknowingly) a perfect Parallax subject. Unnervingly we are given no idea of Parallax’s aims. We never learn anything about them and why they do what they do. Are they in it for the personal gain? Are they hired guns? Is their whole programme not about recruiting assassins but recruiting plausible patsies to cover for the real hitmen (that certainly seems to be the impression from the film’s bleak ending)? It’s all left up to the viewer to decide from the scant evidence supplied.

What is clear is that The Parallax View is a deeply troubling film, which presents a haunting and disturbing image of a country where justice is dead and power talks. The film is bookended by a senate commission in session (seemingly floating towards the camera in a brilliant camera effect), giving almost identical reports on assassinations. It’s a chilling film, where even the heroes are not particularly sympathetic or heroic and where hope and change are distant dreams. It’s perhaps the perfect 1970s film.