The Seventies were an amazing period for American filmmaking, filled with dark, independent-minded, politically charged films like Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and Blue Collar. Director Alan J. Pakula (who died in 1998) was responsible for a trio of the finest films of the era, all of which filled their frames with the black murk of conspiracy, deceit, and self-preservation. The second two films, The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976), were overtly political, but the first, 1971's Klute just hinted at the decade of paranoia and lies to come.
Klute is the story of private detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland), who comes to New York City from a small Pennsylvania town looking to find a missing man. Actually, the man has been missing for six months and the official investigation has essentially been closed. The only lead that Klute has into the case is a series of dirty letters written by the missing man to a prostitute named Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), who is experiencing some inner turmoil of her own (throughout the film she's shown at a psychiatrist's office). Bree becomes the emotional and thematic center of the film, as she tries to reconcile her tough exterior with her complex feelings for Klute and as she begins to reevaluate her entire life.
The thing that makes Klute interesting isn't necessarily the plot points (Key information to the truth slips pretty early on) but the dank atmosphere in which all the characters live. The film is constructed from some of the most basic cinematic elements and feels spare and lean. The opening scene, for example, contains one of the most basic - and effective - editing patterns in the filmmaker's toolkit: A smiling man sitting in a chair; a smiling woman in a chair; the man's chair, now empty; the woman, now sad. The effect is to tell a story with minimal exposition, and Pakula employs this style throughout.
The characters, while complex, also are painted with this kind of tight, classic film technique. Fonda's Bree is a complex, confused woman who has survived by building walls between herself and everyone else in her life, but now finds these walls being challenged. Sutherland's Klute is stoic and mysterious, totally obsessed with locating his man, but still he finds Bree and her life slowly seeping in to his soul. The film doesn't necessarily wear its heart on its sleeve; Much of the emotion is buried deep beneath the characters' defense mechanisms. But the actors do imbue these desperate people with individual inner lives. Even Fonda, who's usually too busy being "Jane Fonda" to really inhabit a role, does some fine work.
Pakula's grim direction and Gordon Willis' pitch black cinematography (a precursor to his Godfather masterwork) combine to give a strong sense of dread to the piece. As I said, the mystery isn't that intriguing (although some of the details stand out) but the methods are. Much of the film is presented through secret audio surveillance tapes, something that was as timely as could be. At the time that the film was made, President Nixon was secretly taping all his meetings, too, and those tapes would figure strongly into Pakula's All the President's Men. This same idea factored into Coppola's The Conversation and DePalma's Blow Out. But Klute did it first, almost like a psychic premonition. Before long the secret audio tape would become the most notorious tool of the powerful and corrupt.
The ending of the film is too abrupt and the wrap-up of the mystery a little uninteresting, but the atmosphere, characters, and paranoia of Klute stay with you long after the film is over.