“Bree (Jane Fonda) attempts to seduce John Klute (Donald Sutherland) by unzipping her evening dress. ‘Would you mind not doing that?’ begs the detective, who has spent the movie trying to track Bree’s would-be killer and sublimate his own attraction to her. There is something about her back, and her willingness to display it, that cannot be explained rationally. Let’s just say I don’t share Klute’s seeming reluctance to see it.” – Desson Thomson
It is a remarkable moment, the unzipping of the back of that dress: Fonda looks great, the dress is fabulous, and Gordon Willis’ cinematography is (of course) superb. It’s one of two scenes that Thomson singles out in his 2005 reappraisal of Klute (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1971), the other being the climactic scene in which Bree’s stalker forces her to listen to the audio recording of her friend being murdered, and she sits there, trembling, silent, with tears running down her cheeks. Klute really ought to have been called Bree; she’s so clearly the lead character, and so much more compellingly written and acted than the part of the detective, that the film belongs to her alone.
As a whole, the film doesn’t have very much more to recommend it other than Fonda’s performance (which won her the first of her two Oscars) and Willis’ cinematography (which sports some of the expert back-lighting that would become one of his trademarks). And, I suppose, some great footage of 1970s New York (Klute came out the same year as The French Connection). As a film about sex work, it’s modern in its frankness and its reluctance to pass judgment on Bree for being an escort at the same time that it completely pathologizes her—she’s a sex worker because she has control issues and is afraid of being emotionally vulnerable with men in bed. It’s Klute who eventually causes her to break down and trust another person, though their relationship is too thinly written. As a thriller it’s pretty generic stuff and as a psychological character study it’s typical pop-Freud, salvaged heroically by Fonda’s formidable acting chops.
|Fonda backlit in Klute. Cinematography by Gordon Willis.|
To the two key moments cited by Thomson I would add a third—the only scene in which we really feel Bree’s awakening feelings for Klute (tellingly, it’s free of any dialogue; Andy and Dave Lewis’ screenplay works best when no one is talking). Bree and Klute are buying fruit from a street vendor at night, and she looks at him from behind with a smile that’s poignant and full of longing. It’s a private, stolen moment, and it’s lovely. And when they walk away from the fruit stall together she trails after him with one hand holding onto the tail of his shirt like a lovesick little girl.