The Absent Presence in ‘Klute’

Klute 1971 Movie - Film Essay

Alan J. Pakula’s neo-noir Klute (1971) begins with a cold open set in an upper middle class Pennsylvania home, as a group of reserved middle Americans make small talk while they pass dishes around the Thanksgiving dinner table. A wide shot extends the length of the table, with each character indistinguishable from any other. For all the iconography of Americana that accompanies this opening scene, it is surprisingly chilly. Pakula makes a full frame feel empty of warmth, bereft of real human connection. The scene continues with a pair of medium close-ups framed at the head and foot of the table. First, Pakula shows Holly Gruneman (Betty Murray), the family’s matriarch, who exchanges a smile with her husband, Tom (Robert Milli), who receives his own medium close-up in the next shot. The low murmur of polite dinner table chatter continues over this wordless expression of assumed contentment, a glance that affirms that the Grunemans have earned the good life. The soundtrack crashes to silence a moment later with a smash cut to Tom’s empty chair, with night how having fallen on the Gruneman house. Dialogue reveals that it is now some months later, and Tom has disappeared. Pakula’s Klute juxtaposes absence and presence, undermining the surface appearance of American life by exposing its subterranean rot, a core concern in the long tradition of noir.

Pakula would spend the 1970s making a number of paranoid thrillers, including The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). Films like Pakula’s flourished in the 1970s, a decade of American cinema marked by its fascination with surveillance, conspiracy and assassination, spurred on by the social upheaval in broader American culture. Though President Richard Nixon would not be driven from office until 1974, resigning in disgrace after the revelation of a secret White House taping system caught him ordering a cover-up of a break-in of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office building, a number of films preceding the scandal are preoccupied with audio recordings. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), a variation on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), stars Gene Hackman as a mercenary wiretapper who becomes obsessed with the recording he has been hired to make of a clandestine meeting between a fearful man and woman who may be murdered by powerful interests. The end of the decade shows that the ghosts of Watergate and audio surveillance are not yet exorcised, as Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) concerns a movie sound man (John Travolta) who captures a political assassination while recording sound effects in a Philadelphia park. Pakula’s Klute comes at the start of the decade, well before the existence of the incriminating audio recordings of the president was publicly known, but it too is consumed by the secrets held in surreptitious audio recordings. Its credits sequence disembodies the voice of the film’s heroine, Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a prostitute with acting aspirations, letting her sensuality float over the soundtrack against shots of spinning tape reels, spindling cables and clacking buttons. This sequence bravely obscures Bree’s face, separating her body from her voice in a way that highlights the film’s continued examination of the simultaneity of absence and presence.

Klute’s plot follows the titular private investigator (played by Donald Sutherland) in his efforts to locate the missing Tom Gruneman; Klute is a family friend and police officer in Pennsylvania where they make their home, and has been commissioned to travel to New York City to track Gruneman down after a six-month absence has left the city detectives baffled. Bree is his best lead, a prostitute who had a rendezvous with Gruneman before he disappeared. While Klute investigates the disappearance, he also suspects that Bree is in danger, most likely from the same person who may have killed Tom. Though the film is called Klute, it is really Bree’s story; in the early part of the movie, she lives a detached existence, furtively checking her watch while faking orgasms during trysts with out-of-town clients and singing quietly to herself in her empty apartment. The film’s foregrounding of Bree’s point of view and sensitivity to her agency has made it a subject of feminist film studies for many years, and critics have commented upon Fonda’s performance in particular as a standout of the New Hollywood period, an era lamentably bereft of interesting female characters. Bree is one of the few. Klute’s overt use of noir conventions, both at the narrative and technical level, requires considering Bree in the context of the femme fatale, though she is a significant challenge to that archetype; Bree is a radical revision of the femme fatale because she is motivated by similar desires but does not act out in such dramatically anti-social ways. She is not a sociopath eager to use violence, given erotic charge by the murder of a husband, as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is in Double Indemnity (1944). Bree faces similar pressures, the ones that make the femme fatale somewhat sympathetic, but never flatly rejects social order. Bree uses sex as a defense mechanism to ensure her survival, not as a weapon against the hapless anti-hero, blinded by his desire for her. Instead, Klute examines the ways in which Bree is a victim of patriarchal society, commodified for men to look at and, most menacingly in the film, listen to. In this way, Klute anticipates Laura Mulvey’s influential theory of “the male gaze,” and gives Bree numerous reflective sessions with a therapist during which she self-consciously describes her own performative role as a prostitute. Though the film contains a number of sequences in which Bree becomes the object of the threatening, hidden male gaze of the killer, she becomes the focus of his auditory preoccupation just as frequently. He is often watching her; when he is not, he is listening on an audio recording.

Klute Movie Film

Klute primarily explores absence and presence by decoupling sound and images from one another. A number of sequences play out with the soundtrack of one scene invading the visuals of another. In one early sequence, the New York detectives describe Bree to Klute and Mrs. Gruneman at the house in Pennsylvania, and Pakula cuts back to New York as she walks down the street toward a phone booth. The detectives continue to explain their surveillance efforts and why they ruled Bree out as a suspect, how they hit a dead end in investigating her. For them, she is absent, a figure they can only describe to the man who will soon take over the case, but she is also present by virtue of the camera’s privileging of her on-screen visibility. Pakula frequently detaches voices from their visual referent throughout the film, a neo-noir iteration of one of the central themes of noir — that American life is characterized by a split between the daylight hours and the nighttime hours, and a shadow world of crime, vice and murder run beneath the main current of broader culture. In noir, American society constantly casts out a massive, rolling dragnet, sweeping up the innocent and the guilty alike and collecting them for punishment. In the 1970s, where cynicism skyrocketed and faith in American institutions plummeted, it is no wonder that filmmakers returned to the pessimistic outlook of noir, where the only certainty was doom.

Klute interestingly intersects with a film cycle just beginning to take root in Italy in 1971, the giallo film. These Italian slasher movies, mostly made popular by Mario Bava and Dario Argento and spawning countless imitators, focus on psychosexual themes and feature black-gloved killers stabbing their way through a number of young women. These films often anonymize their killers through adopting a subjective camera, depicting the murderers’ initial visual stalking of the victims but maintaining it up through the actual act of killing itself, as knives slash into the image and make violent contact with the bodies of screaming women. Without speculating as to Pakula’s familiarity with the giallo, it is easy to see that Klute uses similar thematic and formal devices. A number of shots are taken from the point-of-view of the unseen killer, staring at Bree from hidden vantage points; Pakula and his legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis occasionally employ a split-diopter, a lens attachment which allows two points of sharp focus that causes a blur in the middle, to look over the murderer’s shoulder while simultaneously seeing Bree across the street. The use of the split-diopter makes the killer both absent and present as well, bringing his physical body closer into the cinematographic frame with Bree, even though they are separated by a tremendous spatial distance. His constant auditory assault on Bree, peppering her with anonymous phone calls, breathing heavily into the receiver, are intended to remind her of his presence while he, and his identity, remain frustratingly absent. Late in Klute, the killer asserts his presence in her space by trashing her apartment (off-screen), leaving behind only a pair of her underwear stained with his semen. While Bree and Klute survey the destruction, the phone rings and Bree answers, only to hear her own voice on the other end, playing back through the killer’s recording of her. Unable to process the complexity of this violation, both absent and present simultaneously, Bree shrieks in horror, one of the few moments of vulnerability Fonda allows her character until the film’s terrifying climax. The killer asserts his constant presence through his terrorizing of Bree, but remains absent through his mask of anonymity.

The killer does not remain anonymous to spectators, however. This revelation is where Klute parts company with the giallo film, which almost always withholds the identity of the murderer until the final moments in the tradition of pulp mystery novels. The murderer is Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), Gruneman’s business partner and friend of the family. Cable’s presence seems innocuous throughout much of the film’s first third; he is at the Thanksgiving table in the opening scene, hiding in plain sight; upon further investigation, however, it is telling that he is one of the only people gathered at the dinner table who is not engaging in polite small talk. When Pakula’s camera tracks slowly across the guests, he is seated right next to Klute, the anonymity of his sexual deviance and brutality hiding in the well-lit glow of holiday cheer. Cable’s identity is revealed at about 45 minutes into Klute, in the first of a series of eerie sequences set in his office high above the financial district in lower Manhattan. Out the window, the construction of the World Trade Center can be seen amidst the haze. Pakula and Willis create a darkened cave by establishing dramatic contrast; wide shots catch Cable’s pitch-black silhouette against the blue of the sky outside the building, a total separation between the light beyond the building and the secrecy of Cable’s office. He silently listens to Bree’s voice intoning on his tape recorder, playing back a conversation between the two of them that took place some years before. The recording was made at a fateful encounter, during which Cable savagely beat Bree in a hotel room; Bree does not remember the identity of her attacker, and Klute suspects that the man who beat her up may be the key to finding Gruneman, so the two hunt him together. Klute and Bree remain in the dark about Cable’s involvement, lending a sense of suspenseful irony to the scenes in which Klute checks in with him about his progress on the case — Cable is paying for the investigation into Tom’s disappearance. Klute discusses the identity of the killer with the killer himself, an overwhelmingly absent presence. One such scene takes place in Cable’s office, well-lit and open when Klute is inside, but dark and foreboding, dominating by silhouettes as soon as he leaves and Cable is left alone with his recordings of Bree.

Klute Movie Film

In Klute’s climactic scene, Cable and Bree have their final confrontation in an empty garment district workshop, owned and operated by one of Bree’s clients. She has sought refuge there from the murderer — Cable has not yet revealed himself, but Klute is onto him — only to find that her client, mistaking her purpose, has left an envelope full of money for her and gone home for the day. Bree waits in the darkened workshop office, believing she will be safe. Cable waits in the dark, hiding amongst the quiet machines, watching her sit behind the desk from a distance. When he finally approaches her in the office, he sits on the edge of the desk, looming over her. Pakula plays the scene mostly in a standard shot/reverse shot patterns, with the close-up on Cable looking up as if from Bree’s point of view and Bree’s shot at eye level, which privileges Bree’s subjectivity without adopting Cable’s. Cioffi imbues Cable with quiet menace, never raising his voice, but calmly explaining his reasons for killing Tom — the revelation that Cable had slept with and beaten a prostitute would have ruined the business, ruined his reputation and ruined his life. Like many powerful men with dark secrets, he was protecting himself from exposure; widespread knowledge of his misdeeds would destroy him. The scene between Bree and Cable continues for an excruciating amount of time; it is deliberately paced, and takes place in the dark, with Bree sitting behind the desk in silhouette, framed against opaque, white glass. The image design recalls the sequences in Cable’s office, as though his very presence has brought the clandestine menace of that personal space into the garment workshop, following him wherever he goes. As he does throughout Klute, Willis unbalances a number of the shots, with the characters framed at the extreme edges, the negative space over their inner shoulders drifting out of focus. Shots like this emphasize both the presence of the character within the frame and the absence of its empty space, giving each equal weight.

The sequence’s most harrowing expression of absence and presence comes when Cable weaponizes his recordings, placing the tape player on the desk in front of Bree. He presses play, and a conversation between Cable and Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan) fills the room. Pakula holds the shot on Bree, framed on the left, while Cable’s imposing profile looms into the shot on the right, the two separated only by a jagged strip of opaque white window behind her. Cable allows the menace of the recorded conversation to linger in the room; Bree knows that Arlyn, a fellow prostitute who may have knowledge of Cable’s identity, has already been killed, her body fished out of the Hudson River. When she hears Arlyn’s voice, she tries to remain within herself, putting her carefully honed detachment to use. However, the longer the recording goes on, the harder it gets for her to stay detached. She knows she is listening to Arlyn’s final moments alive; the knowledge that Arlyn is about to be killed, something that Arlyn herself does not know, proves too much for Bree. She begins to cry, tears streaming down her face, snot dripping from her nose. Arlyn, now absent, is brought horrifically into the present through the audio recording. In listening to Cable toy with Arlyn — he reveals his name to her, and then insists upon his revelation as proof that he means her no harm — Bree recognizes her own immediate danger. Cable is dragging her into the moments before he killed Arlyn, torturously asking her to live out two murders — Arlyn’s and her own. On the recording, the murder itself suddenly erupts, and Pakula cuts to an overhead shot of the spinning reels while Arlyn’s screams cut through the quiet dialogue, the sounds of a struggle exploding before trailing off to nothing. He cuts to Cable, listening quietly. The absent, recorded Cable lets out an exhausted, post-coital sounding grunt. A second later, the present, living Cable’s eyes dart towards the off-screen Bree. He switches off the recorder, and a few eternal seconds later, lunges at Bree in a furious attack, a staccato explosion of drumbeats accompanying his assault. The threat, which has for so long remained an absent presence, has become a present absence, the soulless Cable divorced from the consequences of his murderous actions, devoid of human empathy, consumed by the desire to punish. Klute arrives in the nick of time, and Cable, stunned, flies backwards through the opaque glass, disappearing in a crash through the iconographic representation of his own absence/presence duality. The final shot, a wide picturesque of Bree’s empty apartment — she’s moving out of New York — while she gathers the last of her things with Klute, both recalls the fully inhabited space and underlines its vacancy. Bree has decided to leave, but some part of her will always remain, as the final phone call she takes from a prospective client on her way out the door demonstrates.

In dramatizing themes of absence and presence so thoroughly, Klute embodies a central feature of neo-noir; as a self-conscious revision of a classic film cycle, noir is always both absent and present in neo-noir films. Neo-noir movies like Klute can adopt and abandon classic noir conventions at will, engaging in a meta-cinematic dialogue with film story and style across space and time. In striking images like the silhouetted frames inside Cable’s office, Willis and Pakula both embrace the principle of high-contrast lighting that marked classic noir films and extend its expression of alienation, using color cinematography to create a world of oppressive structures where darkness somehow exists in a space that should be awash in sunlight. Darkness and light are both absent and present, the empty blue squares of sky beyond the New York harbor the emblems of daylight that do not penetrate the nightmare blackness of Cable’s lair. Beyond the film’s literalized use of decoupled sound and image that underscore its fascination with absence and presence, it is also consumed with the emotional simultaneity of being both with and without someone. Bree’s surreptitious glance at her watch during a fake orgasm with the client exemplifies how she sees herself; detached, unwilling to engage emotionally, afraid to risk real human connection. At Klute’s halfway mark, she seduces the formerly resistant title character in his basement room. Pakula repeats the angle over the bed, looking down on Bree as Klute thrusts on top of her; this time, however, she does not glance at her watch, a look absent from her cries of ecstasy. After their encounter is over, Klute has withdrawn to the edge of the bed while Bree sits against the wall, suspecting that he’s been made. Bree asks, “Are you upset because you didn’t make me come? I never come with a john.” Suddenly, the vulnerability that Bree has let creep in has now vanished, and her defense mechanism has returned. The shot from earlier in the film, when she checked her watch, is both present and absent; Pakula has repeated the image, not the action, but in reprising the framing, has reminded the spectator of this striking moment, priming viewers to look for it, but never delivering. She doesn’t look at her watch, inviting the possibility that she is really present in this moment, with Klute, defenses lowered, emotionally open and invested in him. When she denies it in dialogue, the presence of her perhaps-genuine orgasmic cries from a moment before lingers, despite her declaration of its absence. Noir invites suspicion of all emotional openness because it imagines a world where vulnerability leads to annihilation. Though neo-noir films like Klute, free of the strictures of the Production Code, can depict deeper moral ambiguity and more extreme content, many still express the terror of risking connection with other people. It is much more comfortable, they argue, to be an absent presence, physically in a space but emotionally distant. However, these lives are also stultifying, alienating and unfulfilling. In a session with her therapist, Bree confesses, “What I’d really like is to be faceless, and body-less, and left alone.” Pakula has cut away from her, instead focused on Klute’s back as he ascends an elevator. The cutaway invites skepticism over Bree’s stated preference for solitude, as Pakula’s camera comes to rest on the man with whom she is developing a closer, more open relationship. She wants to be absent, but she is human; humans cannot help but be present.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.