Two nights ago I watched the new Criterion Bluray of Alan Pakula‘s Klute (’71). For me this fascinating noir has always been a 50/50 thing — half about Jane Fonda‘s brave, naked, brilliantly anxious performance as Bree Daniels, a brittle, self-isolating call girl in a cold, predatory city save for the steady, somewhat doleful presence of Donald Sutherland‘s Pennsylvania detective, and half about Gordon Willis‘ smooth, swoony cinematography and particularly his mineshaft blacks…those inky shadows and crisp capturings just take me away, I’m telling you.

I was in hog heaven during those 114 minutes, and I could probably watch it again next weekend without the slightest hesitation. It’s so honest, believable, restrained, focused, whipsmart. And it was so hard to get right. Sculpting a good film is always an uncertain, touch-and-go process, and doubly or triply so, I imagine, when the final product is a masterpiece.

There’s a nicely written Mark Harris essay in the little booklet, “Trying To See Her,” but as far as Fonda’s journey of self-doubt and pain is concerned, I prefer this excerpt from the Klute Wikipage:

“To prepare for her role as Bree, Fonda spent a week in New York City observing high-class call girls and madams; she also accompanied them on their outings to after-hours clubs to pick up men. Fonda was disturbed that none of the men showed interest in her, which she believed was because they could see that she was really just ‘an upper-class, privileged pretender’. She had doubts about whether she could portray the role and asked Alan Pakula to release her from her contract and hire Faye Dunaway instead, but Pakula refused.

“Eventually Fonda turned to her memories of several call girls she had known while living in France, all of whom worked for the famed Madame Claude. Three had been sexually abused as children, and Fonda used this as an entry to her own character, and as a way to understand Bree’s motivations in becoming a prostitute.”

You’d think that the guy playing the titular character would be an essential part of the conversation, but Sutherland, steady and true as his performance is from start to finish, is fourth-ranked. He’s completely fine, but Klute is dominated by Fonda, Willis and Pakula, in that order.