Jane Fonda's 'Klute' Belongs in the 1970s Hollywood Canon

Jane Fonda plays an ahead-of-her-time sex worker in the now-classic 1971 thriller 'Klute.'

Klute
Warner Bros

While America in 1971 may have been in the middle of a sexual and feminist revolution, the country found itself considerably more confused when it came to the issue of prostitution. On January first, Storey County, an area of about 700 residents located outside Reno, Nevada, passed legislation to legalize prostitution. In May of that same year, women liberationists would gather in Midtown Manhattan with the blessing of Governor Rockefeller’s office and listen to activists extol the virtues of the prostitute as “the only honest woman left in America.” Shortly thereafter, New York City mayor John Lindsay would announce a crackdown on prostitution and pornography in Times Square, a measure so ineffective that it would lead the New York Times to openly wonder if New York City should just follow Nevada’s lead and legalize the whole damn thing.

It was in this climate that Warner Bros. Pictures released Klute, a mystery that spends most of its time trying to understand someone other than the title character. John Klute — played with a languidness by Donald Sutherland that borders on stupor — is a former Pennsylvania police officer who takes on the investigation of a close friend after the case goes cold. Klute travels to New York City in search of his only lead: Bree Daniel (Jane Fonda), an aspiring actress and high-class prostitute who was sent multiple lewd letters from the victim before his disappearance. Daniel was interviewed by New York police immediately following the interview and spent several months in jail for solicitation. When she trades information regarding the disappearance for a shorter sentence, she finds herself forced to rebuild her life far away from her swanky midtown apartment. Now her life consists of auditions for cosmetics commercials and short appointments with respectable clients during their business hours.

Daniel is a complicated character. The film wants us to understand that she comes by sex work without being coerced or being identified as a sexual deviant but can’t help hedging its bets against such bold statements. Daniel calmly defends sex work to people outside the industry — John Klute and her psychiatrist chief among them — but also struggles under the influence of a former pimp (the wonderfully sleazy Roy Scheider) and occasionally uses words that infantilize her own trade, such as when she baits Klute by suggesting his fantasy is to “tinkle” on women. This inconsistency puts added importance on Daniel’s therapy sessions; rather than clogging the film down with exposition, they offer a safe space for Daniel to discuss prostitution without suspect motives. She speaks openly of her clients and does not hold back from describing how much she enjoys exerting control; in the first session that we see, Daniel defends both the morality of prostitution as well as her own personal commitment to the trade. She knows she’s good at it and she always feels great afterward.

Daniel’s assertion that prostitution is her source of power is echoed in the way that director Alan J. Pakula and director of photography Gordon Willis shoot these scenes. In an early sequence, Daniel stands in a lineup of auditioning women as faceless executives walk the line and point out their physical imperfections. This one is too pretty; this one has unattractive hands; this one is too old. The camera ignores the faceless executives, choosing instead to frame the sitting women looking up at those towering over them. As the two men (and one woman) walk down the line making their comments, we focus on the stretched faces of the girls as they try and smile through rejection. Later, as Daniel meets with a casting director in his room, he pokes and prods at her face before answering the phone and dismissing her entirely. Compare this to when Daniel is with a client: she initiates physical contact, and the camera is often fixed on the man’s face, carefully watching him as he carefully watches (and admires) her.

These occasional dalliances with voyeurism suggest that Klute is leveraging another genre — the Italian proto-slasher known as the giallo — as a way to contrast its portrayal of sex work against the common stereotypes of sexual deviancy. Many parts of the film seem to borrow from the giallo’s playbook; just as many gialli used British and American actors on Italian sets, Klutebrings its title character into seventies New York as an outsider, an amateur detective driven to investigate the disappearance of someone close to him. Klute openly lifts elements from the giallo — the shots from over the shoulder of the unseen adversary, the breathy chant of the Morricone-inspired soundtrack — but with a different end game in mind. The suspect may be enacting his own psycho-sexual fantasies in the pursuit of Bree Daniel and her associates, but Daniel herself is not.

And while Klute may make overtures at being a contemporary thriller, its complete indifference towards its own murder investigation underscores its place as an issue film first and foremost. The film opens to an edited version of a conversation between Daniel and a mystery client; we hear Daniel respond to the client’s advances and speak openly about her sexual desires, but the other half of the phone conversation has been omitted. It would stand to reason, then, that whoever owns both halves of the tape recording would be in some way connected to the disappearance. Klute gives that information up before reaching the halfway point. We watch a secondary character — alone in an empty boardroom and with the skeletons of construction machinery outside his window — carefully restart the tape, face devoid of emotion. This lack of a central mystery would not be overlooked by contemporary critics; in his review for The Washington Post, film critic Gary Arnold would note that the film seems to make a conscious choice towards characterization in favor of plot, and one that he respects.

In a recognition of both the quality of Jane Fonda’s performance and the strength of the character, Klute would go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress at the 1972 Academy Awards. After walking to the stage, a visibly shaken Fonda would smile at the audience and share only a few brief words: “There’s a great deal to say, and I’m not going to say it tonight. I would just like to really thank you very much.” For those who were hoping that Fonda would speak out against or in favor of prostitution, the brevity of this moment was likely disappointing. For the rest of us, this moment sums up the relationship that Klute has with its non-title character. There’s a lot to say about sex workers — a lot that we still have to say — but Fonda and Alan J. Pakula weren’t going to say it all in one movie. They just want to really thank you for watching.

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.