Milestone: “Klute” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

It is more than a truism that movies (and men) often locate women within an inhuman bifurcation: Madonna or Whore. Klute‘s Bree Daniels is perhaps the ultimate hooker role — sharp, intelligent, cool, and, however frightened she is by the unknown stalker who may or may not be threatening her life, in control.

Or is she? As portrayed by an astonishing Jane Fonda, Bree’s nervous energy constantly smolders just under the skin, until it periodically bursts through in justifiable rage. She’d rather be a model, or an actress, than a call-girl, but as we see from her attempts to enter either profession, the control belongs to others. Mostly men, but not entirely: At a fashion ad cattle-call the woman in charge (Mary Louise Wilson) sees Bree and the other hopefuls solely, and entirely, only as the various facets of their bodies the creative team wishes to exploit; when Bree is asked to show her hands, Wilson casually rejects them as “funny” before going to the next aspirant. Similarly, when Bree visits an actors’ agent (Anthony Holland) he pushes the hair of her shag cut off her forehead and tells her not to hide her face. Since Holland was gay and his on-screen persona reflects that, the implication is that even men who aren’t interested in Bree sexually feel they have the right to touch her without permission.

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The elegant meat-rack at the high-fashion magazine.

Klute’s screenwriters, the brothers Andy and Dave Lewis, were television scribes desperate to break away from the small screen, and they fashioned in their script a curious hybrid. Their eventual director, the redoubtable Alan J. Pakula, later remarked upon Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum that a melodrama cannot also be a character study, yet this is precisely what the Lewises devised, what interested Pakula, and what has made Klute so well-respected, and so memorable, for nearly a half-century; whatever the movie’s virtues or weaknesses as a thriller, there had never been a more fulsome, detailed, and honest, study of a whore in American movies when the picture opened, and there hasn’t been another to touch it since.

It has been suggested that the eponymous figure, played with both enormous restraint and great, if minimalist, feeling by Donald Sutherland, is a supporting character in the movie, and it’s difficult to argue, although calling it Bree, as Roger Ebert suggested, would have been wrong; a thriller needs mystery, and the name “Klute” is just odd and mysterious enough to be intriguing to a ticket-buyer. I know it was to me when, as an adolescent, I caught the picture on television. Still, once the picture moves past its opening sequence, Bree is in nearly every scene, and Klute is more involved in her actions and behavior than in the intrigues the suspense format requires. In this way the movie is the polar opposite of Pakula’s subsequent masterwork, All the President’s Men, which is almost entirely unconcerned with the private lives of its protagonists. Not that the plot is by the way; John Klute’s search for his missing friend and for the man whose unnerving anonymous calls to Bree strand her on the knife’s edge, are what the narrative is nominally about, and without them the lives of Bree and Klute would never intersect. But the filmmakers see Bree Daniels whole, and not merely as a technical contrivance.

27b71be408a63359fe6037c9b316bf23For all that it is concerned with sexuality, Klute is almost chaste in its presentation of Bree. There is a moment, early on, in which we see how she operates with a john, where for a brief moment one of Fonda’s breasts is exposed. But while we see the pair in bed later (and, as when Klute finally succumbs to Bree’s blandishments, Pakula shoots it from the shoulders up) the camera is focused on Fonda, seen in a tight close-up as she feigns passion, and takes a surreptitious look at her watch. Pauline Kael found this moment the only false note in Fonda’s performance, observing that Bree’s looking at her wrist before or after she coos encouragement into her client’s ear would have been valid but that to do so during it was indulging in a cheap laugh. I disagree. Part of Bree’s sense of control is being on top of every aspect of her paid trysts, and a prostitute is always aware of the progress of time. Time after all is her (or his) ultimate enemy. Other than child stars, models, dancers and athletes, no one ages out of desirability faster than a whore.* As the fashion writer Amy Fine Collins notes on the new Criterion edition of Klute, Fonda’s wardrobe in the picture constitutes a curious split. On the one hand, she usually wears high collars, but just as often revealing skirts, and her breasts are unfettered by brassier whether she is at home, on the job, or in the streets. Bree parades her sexuality openly, yet she’s protecting some part of herself. Her outfits are both a come-on and a holding back.

Klute is one of those time-capsule movies, like The French Connection, Born to Win or Marathon Man, that capture in amber the look and feel of New York City as it was in the 1970s, after white-flight reduced its tax revenues and before gentrification began to push its poorer (and darker) residents out. And while she is reduced by circumstances into living in a hovel next to a funeral parlor, Bree behaves as if she’s still ensconced on Park Avenue; the Mermaid dress she sports with a feather boa when she visits the elderly garment merchant (Morris Strassberg) is clearly a remnant from palmier days and must once have set her back several thousand dollars.

Fonda in Mermaid dress

Bree in the mermaid dress

There is despair around the peripheries of the picture’s action, and while it is palpable — the scene in which Bree and Klute inadvertently foil two strung-out junkies’ attempt at a heroin connection is, in the couple’s mute, stunned anguish, nearly unbearable — it never overwhelms the movie. The marginal existence of Klute’s whores, johns and junkies is neatly offset by Gordon Willis’ lighting of the perfectly appointed office in which the psychopath (Charles Cioffi) is seen in his natural milieu. With its huge sliding panel (a photo of Neil Armstrong’s moon-walk) it becomes a kind of dark sanctum, accessible only to the man whose wealth and insularity imply a control he barely hangs onto. Although we don’t quite know what Cioffi is up to, the filmmakers telling us who the killer is before the mid-point points out the difference between a suspense movie and a mere mystery.

Pakula’s direction is remarkable throughout. Being more interested in actors than in flash, his style is mutable. Yet it’s never dull, or ostentatious. All that connects Klute and All the President’s Men are their sense of comprehensible paranoia — a third Pakula picture during this period, The Parallax View of 1974, completed a disturbing triptych on American themes — their intelligence, and the presence of Willis as the cinematographer. Pakula is the auteurist’s despair: A filmmaker whose approach is dictated not by identifiable touches recycled with variation from movie to movie but by the material in them. The look of Klute is nearly documentarian, which is as it should be; even within the contrivances of the thriller plot, the picture captures a life as it is lived, in all its messy contradictions.

The editing, credited to Carl Lerner, is crisp and pointed; there is a striking moment early on when Klute’s friend literally disappears from the picture. Michael Small’s music is, like his score for Marathon Man, eerily unsettling, all the more so in his use of Sally Stevens’ ethereal vocalese, so effective that Lalo Schifrin included her in his music for Dirty Harry later in the year. Willis’ cinematography is, as always with this painter of light, masterly, the bright sunlit streets contrasted with the nocturnal darkness that conceals, enshrouds, and threatens. The Lewis’ screenplay is taut and judicious, doling out no more information than is necessary for us to comprehend the basic set-up and to follow as it unwinds, and their dialogue never makes a misstep. It’s sharp and, occasionally, pleasingly elliptical, as when Bree, thinking she’s seen the last of Klute, taunts him. When he refuses to rise to the bait, all she’s left with is an angry, “Fuck you!” She thinks she and her underground compatriots have “gotten” to Klute, but he gets to her by dismissing her cynicism as empty posturing. There’s no need to go any further into it. Writing well is sometimes knowing when to stop.†

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The Lewises also give Fonda a classic monologue. When, during his first interrogation of her Klute makes reference to the old gentleman, Bree laces into what she reads as his judgmental attitude with barely controlled fury:

You saw that? Goddamn you! He’s 70 years old! His wife’s dead. He’s cut garments since he was 14. He’s maybe in his whole life had one week’s vacation, and I’m all he’s got! And he never lays a hand on me! What harm is there in that? What’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? You a talker? A button freak? Like to have your chest walked around with high-heel shoes? You like to have us wash your tinkle? Or do you get it off wearing women’s clothes? Goddamn hypocrite squares!

And indeed, the scene between Fonda and Strassbreg is, in its way, the gentlest and most revealing in the picture. While he plays an old recording of a cimbalom-laden waltz, she spins out the fantasy of erotic Continental romance she knows he wishes to hear as she slowly begins removing her clothing. It illuminates at once how quick-thinking Bree is, how much she relies on her acting ability to ply her trade, and how in control of the scenario between herself and her client she really is. If Klute was less disgusted by the mere idea of prostitution, he might notice these things.

In the large supporting cast, Roy Scheider has a good, if brief, early role as Bree’s one-time pimp. Although the character is repellent, Scheider soft-pedals him, making him seem eminently personable and reasonable, yet the actor never lets us forget how dangerous he is, especially to Bree. Cioffi is disturbingly normal, pretending to be concerned about the disappearance of Klute’s friend (and his employee), stringing Klute along and, at the climax, calmly playing for Bree a tape recording of his horrific murder of the junkie as she silently weeps; that he is so disengaged from this event, and that we don’t know what he was doing to the girl as she screams in anguish, make the thing twice as chilling.

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Fonda and Scheider. Note the proprietary hand on her shoulder.

Aside from Holland and Strassberg there are also good roles for Dorothy Tristan as the junkie whore; Rita Gam as an angry, jilted Lesbian; Nathan George as a police detective; Shirley Stoller as a repulsive madam presiding over a joyless collection of bored whores and middle-aged johns; and Jean Stapleton, by the time of the picture’s June release an instant television star on All in the Family, as a comically harassed secretary. Candy Darling shows up as a club patron, Veronica Hamel is one of the models dismissed by the advertising team and Richard Jordan is a victim of Bree’s drug-addled flirtatiousness. Rosalind Cash has a tiny role in a nightclub. Richard Schull and Sylvester Stallone also allegedly appear, although when I see the picture I never notice either of them.

aSpeW79Sutherland, one of the most interesting actors of his generation, gives a performance of unerring exactitude, reacting in an understated manner to almost everything he sees and never pushing for effect. It’s a self-effacing performance, all the more so for the actor’s being willing, at that stage of his career (he’d just appeared as Hawkeye Pierce in MASH) to submerge himself in a secondary lead opposite the woman with whom he was romantically involved. Sutherland’s Klute is never snide or insinuating — although Bree perceives him as both — just quietly dogged. He cares about his missing friend, and while he doesn’t wish to believe the man capable of brutalizing women, it’s an idea he’s willing to accept if it gets him closer to his goal. Having unintentionally gotten a woman killed, Klute takes pity on her junkie boyfriend, slipping him some bills from his wallet. It’s a gesture the man is too zonked to do anything but accept, yet we sense that, for Klute, however much it was, it could never be enough. His essential decency is never far from the surface as when, trying to comfort Bree, his hand hesitates before making contact with her body.

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There’s also a nice switch on domestic roles late in the picture, when he and Bree stop at a sidewalk vendor’s stalls and she watches with relaxed amusement while he tests the fruit with his long fingers. As in the sequences in which he watches over her as she sleeps or attempts to soothe her fevered brow, it’s as if he’s perfectly happy to accept a more traditionally and stereotypically “feminized” position, performing as mothers do without thinking. It speaks to Sutherland’s thespic gifts that he never makes a show of these moments, or comments on them with either his face or his gestures.

Sutherland in Klute

As Bree, Jane Fonda’s acting is so spontaneous it almost seems to be observed by a hidden documentary camera, yet you’re never in doubt that she knows exactly what she’s doing. Pakula observed to Dick Cavett (in an extra on the Criterion disc) in 1978 that she couldn’t have given the same performance in 1971 had she been the woman, and the actress, she later became — that her nervousness and her uncertainties, about herself and her off-screen activities, bled into her approach to the part. (She tried to get out of playing Bree, thinking she was wrong for the role, but Pakula knew it was her nerves speaking.) As with Sutherland, there is not a moment in her performance that reads as false, or “acted.” She’s beyond acting here, and she never censors Bree Daniels or tamps down on the less pleasant aspects of her personality. She can be cruel, as when she seduces Klute only so she can dismiss his ardor afterward, yet you don’t hate her, no matter what she says, or does.

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Pakula directing Fonda. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fonda’s line readings, always unusual, seem exactly right even when they’re a little off-kilter or she places the stress on a different word, or even on a different syllable, than you expect. It’s part of what makes her performance so astounding, and so fresh, no matter how many times you watch it. Although some lines were changed during shooting, as is nearly always the case, only the sessions between Bree and her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan, in a nicely calibrated performance) were actually improvised. It was a clever notion of Pakula’s, forcing Fonda to confront her feelings about the character, about what she does for a living, and how she feels about it. Bree becomes more complex, more vulnerable and interesting — more alive — as a consequence, especially when she speaks with trepidation about her growing feelings for Klute. That’s a complication she never counted on, and being vulnerable to and with another human being shakes her.

Nor is Fonda afraid to let herself look slovenly, or zonked-out, or, as in the climax, notably moist; while Cioffi plays that hideous tape, you become aware not only of the tears falling down Fonda’s cheeks but of the thin strings of mucous hanging from her nose. That’s partly what I mean by her being, in Klute, beyond acting. What she does with the role is as powerful now as when the movie was new; Jane Fonda’s performance as Bree Daniels is one of the finest, of any kind, ever committed to film.

No, I’ll go further: It’s the single greatest performance by an American screen actor in the past 50 years.


*By “desirability,” I do not necessarily mean erotic attraction; I’m referring to professional limitations, artificial or otherwise.

†In the shooting script, Bree does later ask Klute what he meant by “pathetic,” but he doesn’t answer.

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Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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Maggie: A Girl of the Screen

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(Written for another, now defunct, blog in January of 2006.)

By Scott Ross

The shade of Stephen Crane will I hope forgive me, for I come in praise of Margaret Dumont. Arguably the greatest “straight-man” in the business. That paragon of public virtue who stood more abuse — verbal and physical — from Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo (not to mention the likes of W.C. Fields) than any one woman should ever have to shoulder alone.

Now, Groucho always maintained that she never understood any of the jokes or why their audiences laughed (an image even Dumont was happy to feed the press). But I challenge you to watch any scene in which she appears opposite the Bros. Marx and convince yourself that’s a true picture of her. It’s possible — just barely — for an actor to get by on that sort of thing maybe once, if the director is clever enough to elicit a performance out of confusion or wooden-headness. But try making a career of it.

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No, she got the jokes and then some. No one who was that much of a thickie could have performed so knowingly and with such grace and comedic polish. Imagine building an entire performing life out of being the butt of the joke. (And a bigger butt there never was, so to speak; cf. the “stateroom scene” in A Night at the Opera.) Was anything meaner ever said of a dowager than Groucho’s “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did” in Duck Soup? Dumont’s reactions are models of comic timing, and if they’re a little broad, as though she was still playing to back of house on Broadway, that doesn’t detract from her charm. After all, was Groucho subtle? Was Chico? How about Harpo?

I was trying to resist the urge to quote endlessly from the movies themselves, but I find I’ve had to succumb to temptation. After all, it’s the only way to illustrate what that sainted woman had to bear from the lips of the Great Grouch.

In Duck Soup:
Groucho: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Dumont: Why, he’s dead.
Groucho: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Dumont: I was with him to the very end.
Groucho: No wonder he passed away.
Dumont: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Groucho: Oh, I see, then it was murder!

Dumont: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
Groucho: Is that so? How late do you stay open?

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Groucho: I suppose you would think me a sentimental old fluff, but, uh, would you mind giving me lock of your hair?
Dumont: A lock of my hair? Why, I had no idea—
Groucho: I’m letting you off easy: I was going to ask for the whole wig.

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In A Night at the Opera:
Groucho: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.
Dumont: Really?
Groucho: Of course, that’s why I’m sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? (Aside to the audience) If she figures that one out, she’s good.

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But she could take it — luckily for us. A Marx Bros. movie without her is a poor thing indeed. (Well, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers had Thelma Todd, but that’s a wholly different animal, if you’ll pardon the expression. Todd, a spunky comedian in her own right, could more than hold her own, especially with Groucho; their demented tango on the balcony in Horse Feathers is a thing of comic beauty.)

Maggie even has a fan club. And it may give you a measure of the affection and esteem with which Groucho regarded her that, despite his public pronouncements about her alleged lack of humor, he hired her to do a dialogue sketch with him on a comedy show in the mid-1960s. She died a few days later — happy, one hopes, in the knowledge that she still had it, and that someone wanted to see it.

Even if Dumont didn’t get the jokes, she was herself funny as hell. Aside from Toddy, Groucho never had a better foil. That alone cements her place in movie history. And if only for that, she is, quite properly, immortal.

Non-Marx Text Copyright 2006 and 2019 by Scott Ross