“I’m sure you’ll find this amusing, but I’m afraid of the dark.”
Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) in Klute, 1971, dir. Alan J. Pakula
Anyone working in movies has influences. I certainly have quite a few. Spielberg and DePalma, for instance, both had an enormous effect on me when I was younger. While I’d loved movies all my life, it was after seeing Jaws, Close Encounters and, particularly, Dressed to Kill that I started to become aware of the camera, of film grammar (English was already my favorite subject so this was not a huge leap) and the other ways these storytellers went about their craft. Spielberg continues to be an influence, of course, the guy continually blows my mind. And there are many other directors who have had an effect, from Hitchcock to Nolan, Wyler to Nichols, Hawkes to Polanski, David Lean. My biggest influence, though, is Alan J. Pakula.
One of the most vivid movie memories I have is going to see Pakula’s adaptation of All The President’s Men with my mom one evening at the Park Plaza Twin Cinema, about which you’ve heard before. I wasn’t old enough to care about Watergate when it was actually occurring, so when I saw the movie a couple of years later, most of what I saw was new to me. The depiction of the Washington Post newsroom is legendary; the movie apparently caused a huge upswing in applications to journalism school. But more than anything, I was transfixed by the style of the movie and how the filmmaker was able to take something that should have been pretty boring and not only rivet me, but at times really scare me. It was my first experience with Pakula.
All The President’s Men (1976) is the third in Pakula’s “70’s paranoia trilogy”, the others being Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974). I saw these in reverse: President’s Men in the theatre, Parallax a couple of years later on TV and Klute many years later in film school. President’s Men, among many other great achievements, has one of the best screenplays ever written. William Goldman deservedly won an Oscar for the film and I am continually amazed, each time I watch the movie, by both the film and the screenplay. Parallax is a weird, creepy, unsettling film starring Warren Beatty, essentially Pakula’s riff on the Kennedy assassination. It’s terrific. And then there is Klute, one of the best films of all time.
Superficially, Klute is a standard thriller: a woman is stalked by a man who wants to kill her. He calls her, watches her, follows her, slowly circling to a final confrontation. Yet Pakula, along with an amazing creative team, takes this genre material and turns it into something different, original and deeply profound.
It certainly works as a thriller. The movie is creepy as hell and gets under your skin in a subversive manner. It’s also a stunning movie visually. Martin Scorcese has remarked that Klute changed the way films were made, particularly its use of darkness. Pakula often worked with cinematographer Gordon Willis, who shot the entire paranoia trilogy, as well as the Godfather trilogy. Pakula and Willis’ work together is incredible. Willis is known by many as “the prince of darkness” given how he likes to light a scene. Take a look at these stills from the movie. They are indicative of much of the lighting and the fun Willis and Pakula have with ‘the dark':
Pakula is also a master of the film frame. Look at this simple shot, for instance, of the two main characters in an elevator:
You don’t have to know anything about the movie to know what is going on between these two people. Their relationship to each other at this point in the movie, along with what each is feeling, is conveyed not only by the actors but by everything in the frame, including the background. Pakula works this way with every shot, underscoring what is occurring in a scene through use of color, costume, production design, the space in the frame… everything has meaning, everything matters.
I’d like to show you one scene I love that has nothing much to do with the actual plot yet shows the mastery of Pakula and his incredible team. It’s the first of a number of scenes that introduce us to Bree Daniels, played by Jane Fonda, a prostitute struggling to leave that life. She is also a struggling actress and in this scene is at an audition. Pakula takes this simple scene and through the use of all these elements, he not only introduces us to Bree but makes an incredible statement about the entertainment industry and how actors, women specifically, are treated.
Genius. Everything matters, everything has a point, from the giant posters above the women, indicative of what they aspire to be but so ugly it disturbs that this is their dream, to cutting out of the frame the faces of the people behind the audition, which gives them an extraordinary power. (Did you catch Veronica Hamel sitting next to Fonda in her very first appearance onscreen?)
In many ways Klute is a prelude to another of my favorite films of all time, Se7en. Both films depict the underbelly of society yet both have a very strong moral point of view. While each might be thought of as sadistic or violent, neither actually shows any real violence. Se7en is ghastly at times but Fincher shows only the aftermath of violence, rather than the glorification of violence we usually see. He wanted the audience to look at the consequences of what it enjoys. Pakula does the same thing. And off screen is always better. The climax of Klute, which involves hearing, not seeing, a murder, is many many times worse than actually seeing the violence. It is one of the most chilling things in a movie I’ve ever seen, made even more so by the performance of Jane Fonda, whose character is forced to listen to the tape. She is held in close up over two minutes in a virtuoso single take and is stunning. It is the pinnacle of screen acting and one of the many reasons she won an Oscar that year.
It’s the human side of the film that ultimately gives it such power. While the film works as terrific thriller, at the same time it has a tremendous emotional impact. It’s a psychological character study as much as a thriller, of Bree Daniels, the prostitute trying and failing to leave ‘the life’ and, to a lesser extent, Klute himself, played by Donald Sutherland. The role of Bree was so challenging Fonda was terrified of playing her and even asked Pakula, mere days before filming, to recast the part. Bree is a remarkable character, strong, funny and smart yet extremely vulnerable. And relatable. Bree’s struggles tap into universal human struggles of self-destruction and loneliness. Pakula remarked that he wanted to explore our innate loneliness as humans and depict how finding a individual or group of people with whom we can relate or have community can give our lives meaning. He certainly succeeds, on every level. Klute is a powerful film, at times devastating, a film that continues to have a big influence on the art of film.
Have you seen the movie? Or any of Pakula’s work? I’d love to hear about it. Also, let us know about other great films you think many people might not have seen. Thanks for reading!