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Donald Sutherland died the day before yesterday, so I thought I’d rummage around and see what I had of his. Turns out I have Klute in Criterion’s 4K restoration. And, having now watched it, I can report that it delivers on many levels, not least Sutherland’s performance, which is a thing of minimalist wonder.

It was made in 1971 so we’re at Peak Donald – Mash, his breakthrough, and Kelly’s Heroes had both come the year before. Don’t Look Now would come two years later. Then came 1900 and Fellini’s Casanova, probably the best of the bunch of around 18 movies Sutherland made in that hot streak from 1970-77.

Klute is actually Jane Fonda’s film, to be fair to her, though it’s named after the character played by Sutherland, John Klute, a smalltown detective who goes to the big city to search for a missing man and falls in with Bree Daniels (Fonda), the prostitute who was the last person to see him.

Playing with Fonda’s image as the radical feminist countercultural firebrand, the braless, dope-smoking Bree is on a trajectory that might be called “the taming of Jane Fonda” in a storyline that she was uneasy about but which she nevertheless gave herself to.

They’re going to fall in love, in other words, this hard-nosed city gal and the simple guy straight in from the boonies. That’s the obvious arc, but director Alan Pakula and writers the Lewis brother, Andy and David, make us sweat for it. And so do Fonda and Sutherland, Fonda emphasising Bree’s mercenary nature with a performance of remarkable take-it-or-leave-it naturalism. Sutherland is almost a statue by comparison, barely moving, barely speaking, plausibly a shy out-of-towner all at sea in the big city but protected by smalltown virtue and a sense of decency.

Externally confident, internally less assured, Bree has never met anyone like this before and is at first incredulous, then disdainful, mocking, playful and, eventually, seductive. Watching her trying different strategies on the detective who won’t go away, all met by John Klute with the same stoic detachment seasoned with a hint of fascination, is why this film remains so very watchable.

Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda

Talking of watchability, the cinematographer is Gordon Willis, not for nothing called the Prince of Darkness. Two years before shooting The Godfather, here’s Willis gifting Alan Pakula what must be one of the most unfalteringly dark films ever made. So much shadow, so much shooting against the light, so many scenes set in rooms with just a single light source. The effect, particularly notable in the way Willis shoots Sutherland, is to render people as oil paintings and the entire film as a moving (barely) work by one of the Old Masters.

Michael Small’s soundtrack works contrapuntally with Willis’s darkness – just high notes, no rumbles – lending an edge of paranoid suspense throughout, as if things might descend into horror-movie territory at any moment.

Apparently you can spot Sylvester Stallone somewhere as an extra, but I missed him. Roy Scheider is very good in a minor role as Bree’s expansive, man-of-the-world pimp, and Charles Cioffi does exceptionally well in a difficult role as a loquacious bad guy at the apex of a chain of surveillance, an incel-before-incels character in a film where everyone else is getting some.

But really it’s a two-hander, with Sutherland and Fonda as variations on the French New Wave couple, in cool isolation as the only fixed real thing in each other’s worlds.

The Parallax View and All the President’s Men would follow three and five years later, but this is the first of Alan Pakula’s so-called “paranoia trilogy”. It bristles with surveillance equipment – the first shot is of a tape recorder – as if it were a warm-up for Coppola’s The Conversation three years later.

Apart from a flappy mid-section where Pakula tells us things about big city life we already know (drugs!) and wallows as things tend towards the romantic, it’s a precision-tooled slice of neo-noir whose 1970s attitudes appear to be in dialogue with the original noirs of the 1940s. Letting it all hang out against keeping it under your hat. Bree Daniels versus John Klute.

As I said before, watch it for the acting. Fonda brilliant, Sutherland even better. He could not be further from Mash‘s joshing, goatish Hawkeye Pierce. Klute reminds us, now he’s gone, of his titanic talent.

Klute – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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