The 1970s was, in many ways, a golden age of a certain style of cinema, and one genre in particular that succeeded in the decade was a series of slick, modern thriller films about investigation and surveillance and policework, a reimagining of the noir genre that had been so successful in the ’40s and ’50s. Many of the thrillers from this era remain key stepping stones for this genre of film, early predecessors to the modern crime thriller. Many of the biggest directors in film in the 1970s explored this particular world, including directors such as William Friedkin (The French Connection), Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor), Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation), Roman Polanski (Chinatown), and Sidney Lumet (Serpico).
No filmmaker was more involved in the explorations of this genre than the great Alan J. Pakula, who spent the 1970s creating a trilogy of films now referred to as the “paranoia trilogy” – Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men. Klute (1971) was the first of these films, starring Jane Fonda as a call girl who gets mixed up in a missing persons case being investigated by detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland).
The most important thing to observe about Klute is that Jane Fonda is incredibly damn good. Honestly, the fact that the film is called Klute is a huge mistake, because detective John Klute clearly takes a back seat to Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels. The range of emotions she puts on, the layers of different personalities and vulnerabilities – the performance is of a sort of high level of difficulty that doesn’t get as much attention as it should – not a flashy performance with a lot of big moments, but a subtle one.
The story in Klute really comes secondary to this performance, but it’s a well-made story nonetheless, even as it may be clear to some viewers relatively early on who the perpetrator of the crime is. The fact of the matter is, Klute isn’t entirely successful as a thriller; it’s mostly buoyed by the strength of Jane Fonda’s performance, a performance strong enough to cover up the other flaws of the film.