Klute (1971)

klute2Its rare that I watch a film these days and just think, wow, I’ve just seen one of my favourite films, ever. That’s what happened watching Alan Pakula’s 1971 thriller Klute. It was just… brilliant. Almost faultless. The script, the acting, the cinematography, the understated direction, the subtle, unnerving music score… wonderful stuff. To think I stumbled into buying this Criterion edition on Blu-ray pretty much by accident.

Its a comforting thought that there are lots of excellent films out there that I just simply haven’t stumbled across yet. Its then a scary realisation that, following that flow of logic, that there are lots of excellent films that I never will. Well, at least Klute didn’t escape me.

Its a curiosity that the subject of the films title, detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) isn’t really the focus of the film: he’s secondary throughout to the drama and ensuing character study surrounding call-girl/aspiring actress Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a breathtaking turn that rightfully won Fonda an Academy Award. I’m not a fan of Fonda -it was really Sutherland’s involvement that turned me onto this film- but she blew me away with this one, causing me to reconsider my appraisal of her as an actress. The film follows a missing-persons investigation that brings John Klute to New York, his only lead to finding missing businessman and friend Tom Gruneman bringing him to the door of Bree Daniels, and a subsequent tour of the low-rent, low-life worst of 1970s New York.

klute3The setting is everything: there is a gritty, nightmare reality to New York depicted in this film, far removed from the post-bankruptcy Disneyland that the city has since become. These are streets not far from those of Taxi Driver. There is something so simple and direct about it: Pakula isn’t trying to shock, he’s simply showing us how things are (were). Likewise none of the cast really draws any attention to themselves- this is the era of 1970s American Cinema and an understated realism to performances and appearances: these are not remarkable-looking, beautiful people populating this film, just ordinary-looking Joes, and indeed the scariest thing about the killer that stalks Bree is that he appears to be an Everyman, nothing remarkable about him at all. I think modern Hollywood would be hard-pressed to cast this film now; the whole point of actors now is to draw attention to themselves, engender individuality to justify their multi-million dollar pay-cheques. Sutherland seems to blend with the wallpaper and brickwork in some scenes, as if he’s trying top convince us he isn’t even there. Fonda, of course, only benefits from the vacumn he leaves in his wake: the film is really her story, and everyone else -Klute, her clients, her psychiatrist, the killer- orbit around her like satellites caught in her gravity.

The cinematography by Gordon Willis (described as the “prince of darkness” because of his skills with light and dark in his films) is draw-droppingly beautiful. Several times I was reminded of Blade Runner, and its clear to me that Klute was likely an influence on how that film looked (compare much of Klute to, say, the lighting of Deckard’s apartment), but while Blade Runner‘s cinematography always drew attention to itself, becoming a character all its own in that film, there is a subtlety to the photography here. And yet the atmosphere, the claustrophobia that fills Klute is all from that cinematography: Bree has an heart of darkness that we can see in every scene, and the delicious (oh so 1970s!) ending has an ambiguity enough to suggest she never escapes from it.

Fantastic film. I absolutely loved it. If by some slim chance you were like me and have never seen it, rectify that as soon as you can.


The China Syndrome (1978)

china2One of the genuine pleasures of watching ‘old’ movies, particularly the first time, is noting all the familiar faces of actors from whatever period the movie hails from. In the case of The China Syndrome, it was seeing the great American character actor Richard Herd, who played chief corporate bad guy Evan McCormack. Herd’s performance is great- he’s like a great boo-hiss Panto villain every time he’s onscreen, and all the while its bringing back all those 1970s/1980s memories I have of him from tv and films of that era. Herd turned up in Starsky and Hutch, Kojak etc and most memorably regular stints in the hit mini-series V and TJ Hooker. Although I haven’t seen him in a while he’s still working but obviously in nothing I’m watching. Anyway, seeing him in The China Syndrome was fun, and he has a great line: “Scram the son of a bitch” which I’ll adopt into my everyday conversation and bug non-movie literate people with for years to come.

china4Other familiar faces include the great James Karen (Return of the Living Dead, Poltergeist, Mulholland Drive), Wilford Brimley (The Thing, Cocoon) Peter Donat (too many tv shows to mention) and Donald Hotton (the notoriously ineffectual bumbling Fed scientist from Brainstorm, and other roles in Invaders From Mars and Dances With Wolves)- it’s a great cast for a movie buff to see and name-drop, one of the many pleasures of this film.

Of course, what finally brought me to watching The China Syndrome (via Indicator’s recent Blu-ray release) was the star billing of Jack Lemmon, and it being one of his films I hadn’t yet seen. Lemmon is, as usual, great in this. He plays a company man,  Jack Godell, who teeters on the edge between company loyalty and the safety of the public, visibly cracking under the pressure and finally realising the cold reality of the company he is working for and the industry he is working in. It rather breaks him, and the strain is almost tangible- Lemmon was brilliant at playing everyman heroes faced with moral dilemmas. At the end as he lies on the floor of the control room and he whispers “I can feel it!” (or something along those lines) the sheer horror etched on his terrified eyes is incredible. He goes over to the other side staring into the abyss and it’s horrible.

china3The China Syndrome is that particular kind of 70s thriller that was of its time, a cold-reality conspiracy nightmare of what is hidden under the surface of everyday life that we really don’t seem to see nowadays (films now more concerned with escapism than facing what’s really going on). The fashions, cars and cast etc are all very 1970s but the story it tells in this era of fake news and soundbites and lies is as timely as ever. As usual for a film of that period, all the actors look ordinary- real as opposed to aspirational. Wilfred Brimley, for instance (another familiar face!) is so perfect as Lemmon’s colleague, he’s totally ordinary and convincing, doesn’t feel like an actor at all. I think even Jane Fonda, as Brenda Starr-inspired redhead fluff-news reporter Kimberly Wells, is rather surprisingly down to Earth and convincing, with some sexist treatment and comments that raise something of a flag in our now more enlightened days “I like your hair like that,” comments her boss at a work party as if thats praise enough for doing her job.

I was surprised at how tense and and terrifying the last ten minutes of the film really was; its the stuff of nightmare and as its a 1970s film you’re never too sure how it’s going to end – films back then had a habit for non-fulfilling endings so you often mutter “they are not really going to..?” because back then they might.  As the control goes dark save for the warning lights and alarms screaming out its genuinely disturbing and it feels like the end of the world. Riveting stuff.