Drama Thriller

The Accidental Masterpiece

Some movie masterpieces are the result of a filmmaker’s singular and pre-meditated vision. Think of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite or Christopher Nolan’s Momento. Others result from a more improvised collaboration that sometimes exceeds everyone’s expectations. It is the cinematic equivalent of a classical versus jazz inspired melody. This week’s movie double comes from both sides of this spectrum.

What to Watch

The first movie to watch is Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), a piece of filmmaking that is akin to the darkly, syncopated rhythms of a Miles Davis track. The movie opens with a family gathering at the home Tom Gruneman, a Pennsylvania chemical company executive. Gruneman disappears and after several months of fruitless police work, John Klute, a detective and family friend, is hired to investigate. His only lead is an obscene letter found in Gruneman’s office, that is addressed to a prostitute in New York named Bree Daniels.

Despite the movie’s title, Bree Daniels is actually our central protagonist. We are first introduced to her as a disembodied voice on a tape recorder as she coolly puts to us, her proposition …

“Have you ever been with a woman before, paying her? … I have a feeling that that turns you on very particularly … Don’t be afraid. I’m not. As long as you don’t hurt me more than I like to be hurt. I will do anything you ask … Nothing is wrong.”

This immediately establishes Bree as a character who is very much in control of that aspect of her life. What follows is in part, a typical thriller – as Klute attempts to keep Bree safe from a person who is clearly menacing her. Is it the missing Gruneman or someone else? However, what makes Klute remarkable, taking it well beyond the normal tropes of a thriller – is the deep examination of Bree’s internal life.

Pakula’s approach to filmmaking is highly collaborative – always open to input from his cast and technicians. Shooting is improvised, inviting the actors to go beyond the script. His initial intent was to make Klute the centre of the film, but once he started working on the screenplay, it was clear that Bree would make the more interesting subject. And here he was fortunate that as Bree Daniels, Jane Fonda would give, arguably her finest central performance.

Fonda’s acting career was just at the start of an upward trajectory and she was also experiencing a growing politico-feminist activism. This left her unconvinced that she could or even should, play a prostitute. Prior to production, she spent eight nights in the company of madams, hookers and streetwalkers and informed Pakula that even the pimps knew that she’s not call-girl material. She suggested that her friend Faye Dunaway would be more suited to the role, but Pakula did not agree. Fonda would go on to win her first Oscar for her performance.

Donald Sutherland plays John Klute and gives a typically generous performance that deliberately leaves room for Fonda to excel. He joins us on the sidelines, quietly observing a fascinating central character.

Klute is Alan J. Pakula’s second film and he was fortunate to have a gifted cinematographer in Gordon Willis, who would later earn the nickname “the Prince of Darkness” for the Godfather films. Willis surrounds Bree with dark and ominous shadows that continually threaten to engulf her. The film’s menacing ambiance is enhanced by Michael Small’s unsettling score. Klute would form the first installment of what would become known as Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy”. The other movies are The Parralax View (1974) and the highly successful All the President’s Men (1976). I would argue that Klute represents his most interesting directed work – coming together to form an ‘accidental masterpiece’.

Companion Piece

When Alan J. Pakula was looking for inspiration prior to the production of Klute, he looked closely at our companion piece, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). The movie opens with a courtroom scene, where Alicia Huberman’s father is convicted for being a Nazi conspirator. Emerging saddened and confused, Alicia soon launches into an aimless drunken revelry. She is given an opportunity to atone for her father’s transgressions, when she is approached by U.S. government agent T. R. Devlin. Her mission is initially undefined allowing for the two to start to build an intimate relationship. Later it becomes clear, that the mission will require Alicia to seduce Alexander Sebastian – an old family friend of the Hubermans. Sebastian is suspected of being involved in another Nazi conspiracy. Things are further complicated when Alex proposes and Alicia has no choice but to accept. How long can she maintain her deception and will Alex’s jealous regard of her friendship with Devlin prove her undoing?

Alicia is played with great vulnerability by Ingrid Bergman. While the Nazis are clearly the bad guys here, the film also questions the morality of the U.S. agency that so easily takes advantage of her circumstances. Cary Grant plays Devlin and inverts his normal charm with a cold and uncharismatic performance. These central performances along with Claude Rains as Alex Sebastian, lifts the emotional stakes of this spy-thriller with an intriguing love triangle.

In his highly regarded series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, French director Francois Truffaut offers Notorious as his favourite Hitchcock movie, stating that the film represents the most perfect correlation between what the director was aiming for and what appears on the screen. Hitchcock is famous for pre-planning his movies – taking the form of storyboards that detail every shot. It is often suggested that Hitchcock found the actual filming tedious because he had already shot the movie in his head.

The precision of Notorious contrasts wonderfully with the improvisation of Klute, making them an interesting movie double. You can stream Klute on Apple iTunes, Google Play, Microsoft Store and YouTube. Notorious is more difficult to find but I would recommend the excellent Criterion Collection blu-ray available from the Amazon U.S. store. You can also find the Truffaut/Hitchcock interviews on iTunes and Google Play. If you are looking to watch a particular movie, you can usually find a stream through the JustWatch website.

Happy viewing!

The Movie Cricket

1 thought on “The Accidental Masterpiece

  1. The jazz v classical premise here is indeed fitting and persuasive. Re-watched ‘Klute’ recently – having originally seen it on the ‘big screen’, and it was a revelation – elegant and mature.

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