A Great Movie You’ve Probably Never Seen, Vol. I

“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 JawsClose 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!

24 thoughts on “A Great Movie You’ve Probably Never Seen, Vol. I

  1. I have always loved the movie “Klute,” as well as “Se7en.” Like Hitchcock before them, Pakula and Fincher not only managed to send chills down the spines of viewers, but directed their actors to stellar performances.

    1. Pakula always drew terrific performances, as does Fincher. Did you ever see the comedy Pakula did called STARTING OVER, with Burt Reynolds, Jill Clayburgh and Candice Bergen? I love the movie and the acting, again, is superb. It is what started Candice Bergen on her comedic road to MURPHY BROWN.

  2. Se7en was one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen–along with Cruising and Silence of the Lambs. I couldn’t get past the “ruin” of it. I would like to see it again ( I haven’t watched it since it came out), but it is one of those movies that makes me feel creepy, weepy and weird for a few days. The Skin I Live in also did that–and Benjamin Button (for different reasons).

    1. I wanted to take a shower when I left Se7en the first time. Totally freaked me out and disturbed me. I’ve seen it a lot, now, and while I hesitate to ask you to watch it again, I do think it is a masterpiece. Every shot is so beautifully thought out, it is a very unsettling movie and it has a very strong moral point of view. Great to hear from you here!

  3. Well, I have seen KLUTE numerous times!!! 😉 Why? Because, as you mention, its incredibly haunting quality. As a filmmaker, I am mood-driven; I practically couldn’t care less about the plot! KLUTE delivers mood beautifully, a brooding look at the underbelly of life with a touch of hope. Thanks for sharing…

    1. Klute is a testament to the extraordiary talent of Alan Pakula who probes the basic humanity of Bree Daniel’s story with keen psychological insight. He is ably supported by Jane Fonda’s bravura performance and the stunning camerawork of Gordon Willis. Mention should also be made of the exceptional work of Donald Sutherland who gives the detective Klute wonderful shadings.

      1. Agreed on all, William! I love how you write about the humanity of Bree, it’s so true and important. There are definitely some who might watch the movie and not feel for her But wow. Humanity indeed. Such a great movie. Thanks for reading!

  4. I actually have seen “Klute”, probably at your recommendation. I have to admit that I wasn’t as enthralled with the movie as you, but your blog gave me a new appreciation for the film that I hadn’t thought about before. I love “All the President’s Men”. Brilliantly written! Brilliantly acted! Brilliantly directed!

  5. Jane Fonda’s entrance in KLUTE is one of the great ones….. And yes, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is brilliant start to finish….

  6. Klute was a departure for Fonda as she’s been in Cat Balou Barbarella, Barefoot in the Park those kind of sexy frothy films so to see her able to act was amazing.

    Donald Sutherland like Wlaken has a real stillness on film which can make him at once very sinister or funny, in a dark way, they don’t show Klute often here UK but it’s worht watching and I always get a little more each time I watch it.

    1. I love Fonda in those films, particularly ‘Barefoot in the Park’… she was also terrific, early on, in ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” I love her in “Julia” as well… well, hell, I love her in just about anything 🙂

  7. Klute is one of my favorite films, at least from my memory of the emotions it inspired when I watched it last, but for some reason I have not watched it in about 15 years. As for movies more people should see, another conspiracy paranoia favorite of mine is The Conversation. It shouldn’t be obscure in an ideal world, since it’s a Coppola film, but I don’t hear people discussing it very often on film blogs.

    1. You are so right, The Conversation is amazing. I’ve seen it numerous times, it’s a masterpiece. I think Klute hits me ever harder, though they are very similar, as I sympathize more with Bree than Harry. But both are terrific movies, on their own, and amazing examples of this type of paranoia movie. I’d love to hear what you think of Klute if you can revisit it all these years later.

      And thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  8. Klute is one of my top five favorite films, as I told Fonda when I met her at a book signing last year. She misheard me, thinking I said “top 25” and seemed disappointed. I quickly corrected her! The combination of vulnerability and toughness that she gives Bree is unmatched by any other female performance in film (in my humble opinion). And Donald Sutherland’s acting is beautiful … for me his Klute is almost a Christ figure. They don’t make them like this any more. I have never seen it on the big screen and would love to.

    1. I am with you on your humble opinion 🙂 It is such a terrific film and how cool you were able to meet Jane F in person! Thanks for the comment, so glad you found the blog.

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