Cinema: A Tenuous Balance

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Klute is a sharp, slick thriller about murder, perversion, paranoia, prostitution and a lot of other wonderful things about life in New York City. The eponymous hero (Donald Sutherland) is a small-town Pennsylvania cop come to the big town to trace the disappearance of his best friend, a home-loving executive with a kinky double life. Klute concentrates on his single strong lead, a high-class hooker named Bree (Jane Fonda), who may have spent a night with the missing man two years ago.

Bree is a distinctly contemporary whore, a sometime model and aspiring actress who turns a trick for cash as well as for the frequent pleasure of dominating her male customers. This is all made plain in extended conversations with her psychiatrist—a rather clumsy dramatic device that lends some furtive substance to the proceedings even while slowing them down. But Klute at least is intrigued and eventually succumbs to Bree's well-practiced blandishments. Somewhat to her surprise, and probably against her will, Bree finds herself falling for Klute.

The film strikes a sometimes successful, sometimes tenuous balance between suspenseful diversion and romantic melodrama. Klute's character is never adequately probed, and there is an uncomfortable number of genre cliches, including a hoked-up terror-in-the-last-reel episode that lacks both terror and surprise. Worse, the sentimental fadeout runs completely contrary to the strenuously realistic tone the film has struggled to sustain.

Director Alan Pakula (The Sterile Cuckoo) still has a tendency to go soft on his characters, but his camera eye and his sense of the rhythm of a scene (strongly abetted by Editor Carl Lerner) have improved considerably. His talent with actors seems now beyond contention, and under his guidance Jane Fonda gives her best performance to date. A couple of years ago, in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, she brought power to a part in which she was basically miscast. In Klute she is profoundly and perfectly Bree: she makes all the right choices, from the mechanics of her walk and her voice inflection to the penetration of the girl's raging psyche. It is a rare performance.

·Jay Cocks