Some critics have called Alan J. Pakula’s neo-noir Klute (1971) progressive and radical in its positive depiction of an independent, sexually liberated woman; others have argued that the construction of the female character is no different than that found in classic noir, and that Klute actually operates in a profoundly anti-feminist way. This essay seeks to explore the reasons behind these diverging interpretations, locating the source of the difficulty in assessing the main female character’s power over the narrative in the disjunctive relationship between sound and image in the film. In marked contrast to the classic noir cycle, in Klute the story is filtered through the subjectivity of the female character, who poses a distinctive challenge to the patriarchal order and the foundation of the heterosexual couple. At the same time, there is a disconnect between the words she speaks in voiceover and the actions we see unfold onscreen that actively works to undermine her point of view. It becomes increasingly difficult, then, to say with any certainty whether the film’s central female protagonist can be considered an active subject or a passive object presented for the male gaze.
The only evidence of his whereabouts is an explicit letter he has supposedly written to a call girl in New York. The tape recorder appears once again over the opening credits, now playing back heroine prostitute Bree Daniels’ voice, calmly discussing business with a client and recommending that he unashamedly act out his desires: “Oh, inhibitions are always nice ’cause they’re so nice to overcome,” she says and laughs seductively. “Don’t be afraid. I’m not… You should never be ashamed of things like that, you mustn’t be, you know. There’s nothing wrong. Nothing… nothing is wrong. I think the only way that any of us can ever be happy is to let it all hang out, you know, do it all, and fuck it.”
Sex, then, and the frankness of this prompting become the disruptive factor which opens the narrative. “In general in the movies, as in society,” Sylvia Harvey writes, “the family at the same time legitimizes and conceals sexuality” (37, emphasis I original). Tom Grunneman’s loyal wife must, of course, deny that her missing husband could have ever been involved with such a woman, but Bree’s voice, introducing illicit sex into the domestic environment, has effectively dislodged the image of the perfect family. The absence of family relations in most classic noirs or its negative and distorted treatment, as in Klute, inherently presents a critique of the American ideal of heterosexual marriage and procreation. Whereas in most genres successful romantic love leads inevitably in the direction of the stable institution of marriage, “the point about film noir, by contrast, is that it is structured around the destruction or absence of romantic love and the family” (Harvey 37). It has been noted that the defining contours of noir are the product of that which is abnormal and dissonant. The absence of “normal” family relationships creates a vacuum that ideology abhors, allowing for the production of seeds of counter-ideologies. As Harvey points out,
“The absence of disfigurement of the family both calls attention to its own lack and to its own deformity, and may be seen to encourage the consideration of alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life. Despite the ritual punishment of acts of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained. Narrative resolutions cannot recuperate their subversive significance” (Harvey 45).
In Klute, however, the heroine’s transgressions are not punished as much as overcome through the reinstatement of the heterosexual couple at the end. The film places Jane Fonda in the role occupied by the femme fatale, the villainous seductress who lures men into deep, deadly trouble in classic 1940s noir. The primary crime of the genre’s “liberated” woman, Janey Place notes, is her refusal to be defined in relation to men, and “this refusal can be perversely seen… as an attack on men’s very existence” (35). But, while in classic noir the femme fatale is seen as “the obstacle to the male quest” (Kaplan 16) or “the central problem in the unraveling of truth” (Gledhill, “Klute 1” 15), in Pakula’s movie Bree is neither the object of the male investigation nor a problem in its path, but rather a clue on the way to discovery.
The character is not a conventional noir woman because she is finally proven innocent of the family’s and the missing man’s destruction; in fact, she has to be saved from her own sexual confusion by the eponymous private detective (played by Donald Sutherland). In the 1940s thrillers the great issue in question is the reliability or otherwise of the woman, the degree of fidelity or treachery inherent in her sexuality; in contrast, the main concern in Klute is the detective’s mission to establish his friend’s honor, the sexual integrity of the man. The fatal passions of noir are here humanized into romance as the woman is cleared of any direct involvement of the crime and proceeds to move throughout the narrative from brittle but genuine self-sufficiency to love and dependence on a man.
In her persuasive analysis of the film, Diane Giddis is prompted to treat Klute as a dramatization of inner conflict rather than a straight suspense story, converting the two male protagonists into projections or symbolic extensions of the heroine’s psyche. “More than a contemporary reworking of the private eye movie,” she writes, “[Klute] seems closer to the psychological suspense thriller, with most of the action going on inside the central character’s head” (27). Thus Bree’s potential killer can be seen as the incarnation of the emotional danger presented by the private investigator. As Giddis notes, from the beginning the two men are shown in juxtaposition, the first threatening “breather” call Bree gets from her tormentor immediately followed by Klute’s appearance on her doorstep and in her life. The second time Klute and Bree meet, the killer, later revealed to be Peter Cable, the missing man’s employer, is shown watching them through a gate ascending the outside stairs from the detective’s basement apartment to Bree’s apartment inside. Although the investigator’s intentions are the opposite of the woman’s pursuer, his methods are often the same; they both watch her from the shadows, follow her on her trips, Klute taps her phone and Cable tapes her sessions with clients, and both are associated visually with plummeting depths and vertical shafts, darkness, and screens of wire netting. Significantly, both men bear towards Bree an intense and ambiguous staring gaze.
The woman’s physical danger increases throughout the film in direct proportion to her involvement with Klute. As her attachment to the detective grows, Cable progresses from disembodied, silent telephone presence to anonymous voyeur and rooftop visitor to fully materialized assailant. Instead of clinging to Klute for protection, however, the heroine repudiates and rejects him, seemingly holding him responsible for what is happening to her. At the height of her emotional involvement with Klute, she tells her therapist that she would like to “go back to the comfort of being numb again.” Throughout the film the character’s dual desires—to maintain control and her need and fear of losing it—create a split in her actions between a loving, vulnerable Bree, which alternates—and sometimes co-exists with—the manipulative and defensive Bree.
The first time Bree and Klute have sex is a perfect example of the contradictory impulses that draw the heroine to him at the same time that she needs to reassert her detachment. Frightened by a noise on her roof and unable to sleep, the woman goes down to Klute’s apartment for company. In her pajamas and without makeup on, she is clearly open and vulnerable, lying on his bed and getting tucked in. In the middle of the night she wakes up and the two make love. She must, however, assume the role of prostitute when she feels threatened, reminding Klute that he means no more to her than any other client and he has failed to satisfy her. Falling back into the comfortable and empowering routine of her job, she assures him, “You were terrific, a real tiger. Are you upset because you didn’t make me come?” she asks. “I never come with a john.” Yet the scene doesn’t end with her assertive exit from Klute’s apartment; this image of independence is undermined when it dissolves into a shot of her lying in her own bed again, alone and miserable.
Not only is there a split in meaning between sound and image, but the voice itself is shown as contradictory. The hesitant, searching remarks made to the therapist, which are often played in voiceover, are answered by the sure, controlled voice on the tapes that Cable obsessively plays. By the end of the film, the heroine’s voice has been effectively stolen by her aggressor and turned against her. The words which were empowering in the original context they were uttered in are repositioned by Cable as indices of the evil which female sexuality incites in men when they are played back to her over the phone and during her final confrontation with the killer.
In her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey posits that the male unconscious “has two avenues of escape” from the threat of female sexuality and the underlying castration anxiety: voyeurism or fetishistic scopophilia. In the first, the woman is investigated and her mystery demystified counterbalanced by her devaluation, punishment, or saving of the guilty object. Mulvey notes that this option is characteristic of film noir, and this strategy is clearly present in Klute, where the detective tries to protect and save Bree, and the killer tries to punish and destroy her. In “Klute 2: Klute and Feminism,” Gledhill notes how the two sides of the ’40s noir private eye—his romantic idealization of women and the contradictory embittered accusatory disgust—are split in Pakula’s movie between the two male characters, “representing complementary faces of patriarchy faced with the problem of female sexuality” (107).
In contrast to Bree, the detective is defined by a puritanical, almost virginal sexuality. Unlike the private investigator of classic noir, Klute’s power stems not from a knowing, often embittered or disillusioned view of the world, but from his innocence. As Gledhill notes, he is “a country boy, with his illusions and morals intact” (“Klute 2” 105). His puritanism undermines Bree’s assertiveness; he responds not to her sexuality, but to the lost child in her. Although the relationship that slowly develops between the two is based on understanding and acceptance—she allows him to see her “mean,” “ugly,” and “whorey,” and he never judges her—Klute’s gentleness is accompanied by strong paternalistic traits.
The second “avenue” Mulvey discusses concerns the complete disavowal of castration by fetishizing the woman, turning her into a spectacle (63-65). Accordingly, in Klute the heroine materializes as an aspiring model, first seen in a lineup at an audition for a commercial, where the selectors discuss the details of the female applicants’ appearance as if they were cattle. Mulvey notes that in cinema the pleasure in looking is split between active/male and passive/female, with women, “in their traditional exhibitionist role” simultaneously “looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (62-63, emphasis in original). I would argue that Pakula’s film significantly complicates this dichotomy through the filtering of the very act of being-looked-at-ness through the main character’s subjectivity. Although the object of the gaze, Bree is not passive or stripped of agency, instead appropriating and using the gaze for her own pleasure (the satisfaction of being in control) and profit (making money off of her male clients). She exploits and is exploited at once.
Gendering Kaja Silverman’s concept of suture, Mulvey goes on to argue that it is the male figure with which the spectator can identify, “so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence” (64). Whether or not Bree’s voice actively controls the direction of the narrative in Klute will be explored further in this essay, but it is undeniable that we identify with the female protagonist throughout the film, associating the events unfolding onscreen with her point of view, not that of either of the male characters. At the same time, it remains debatable whether Bree actually maintains control through exercising her voice. Because of the disjunction between sound and image, the audience experiences a distance between the narrating voiceover and the story being narrated which leaves room for ambiguity.
One way of looking at the plot of the typical film noir, Gledhill argues, is to see it as a struggle between different voices for control over telling the story (“Klute 1” 16). In classic noir, a hierarchy of discourses is established, suppressing the female discourse in favor of the male. The subjective narration, usually developed in voiceover, is almost always performed by a man, which, as Molly Haskell points out, completely deprives the woman of her point of view (198). It is not as clear if this is the case in Klute, where the confession-oriented investigation of noir is divorced of the male hero, becoming an investigation of the self, one instigated by the woman. Her claim to wield the normally male prerogative of words allows Bree, especially in her meetings with her clients, to actively engage with male sexual fantasy instead of passively being its object. In order to understand the degree of power Bree holds over the narrative, we must analyze the way her voice is used throughout the film.
Mary Ann Doane and Silverman have discriminated between different kinds of voice in cinema. Doane distinguishes between (1) synch; (2) voice-off (where a character speaks from offscreen and is not seen); (3) interior monologue (where we see the character and hear his or her asynchronous voice); and (4) disembodied voiceover (no visible character or designated diegetic figure). Silverman takes these categories and, applying them specifically to the female voice in cinema, remaps them in terms of “embodiment” as: (1) synch sound (which she suggests binds the female film subject to the prison of the objectifying image); (2) the floating voice (one that at times emerges as detached and, at other time, can be attached to a specific female body in the film and thus enjoys a certain degree of subjectivity or resistance to classical cinema’s objectification of the female body); and (3) the disembodied voice (a voice entirely without visual locus, which Silverman understands to be the most resistant to the oppressive dominant ideology of patriarchy). In Klute, the voice of the heroine starts as disembodied, “freed from its claustral confinement within the female body,” but thereafter fluctuates between these different stages of embodiment (186). What is problematic about analyzing Bree’s power in terms of her relationship to the objectified female body is that it is the body itself which acts as the source of the character’s independence and power.
Bree confides in her therapist that the only time she feels in control is when she is turning tricks. Trying to get away from “the life” through modeling or acting jobs places her in a position of helplessness, vulnerability, and passivity, whereas with a john she can feel wanted, she knows what she’s doing, and, “for an hour, [she is] the best actress in the world and the best fuck in the world.” She continues, “That’s what’s nice about it. You don’t have to feel anything, care about anything, you don’t have to like anybody, and you just lead them by the ring in their nose in the direction that they think they want to go in, and you get a lot of money out of them in as short a period of time as possible, and you control it, and you call the shots, and I always feel just great afterwards.”
From the first time we see Bree interacting with a client, we are encouraged to identify with her subjectivity. Even in the moment in which it would perhaps be easiest for the film to objectify the woman, when we see her having sex, our adherence to Bree’s point of view is clinched when, groaning out a fake orgasm, she quickly checks her watch over the client’s shoulder. Although she offers her body, her mind is elsewhere. Later we witness how her favorite client, an old man who “never lays a hand on [her]” pays Bree to fabricate stories about erotic encounters in romantic locales. She approaches prostitution as if it were a form of masquerade, no different than her auditions as an actress or her modeling calls.
For the character, control turns on enunciative power, what Silverman calls “her capacity to effect through discourse” (83). The importance she attributes to play-acting, however, suggests that “enunciative authority can come to be invested only in a voice which refuses to be subordinated and judged by the body” (Silverman 83). The character thus aspires to the condition of a disembodied voice, a fact indicated not only by the verbal masquerade, with its disconnect between body and voice, exteriority and interiority, actions and feelings, but by a telling remark she makes to her analyst: “What I’d really like is to be faceless and bodiless and be left alone.” As Silverman writes,
“The voiceover is privileged to the degree that it transcends the body. Conversely, it loses power and authority with every corporeal encroachment, rom a regional accent or idiosyncratic ‘grain’ to definitive localization I the image. Synchronization marks the final moment in any such localization, the point of full and complete ‘embodiment’” (49, emphasis in original).
Michel Chion, in The Voice in Cinema, similarly comments on the contrasting values traditionally assigned to the embodied voice, on the one hand, and the disembodied, acousmatic, voice, on the other. Sexual difference functions as a point of reference, especially when, in one striking passage, he compares the localization of a previously unlocalized voice to the performance of striptease:
“In much the same way that the female genitals are the end point revealed by undressing (the point after which the denial of the absence of the penis is no longer possible), there is an end point in de-acosmatization—the mouth from which the voice issues…. As long as the face and the mouth have not been completely revealed… de-acousmatization is incomplete, and the voice retains an aura of invulnerability and of magic power” (28).
It is at the moment when we see Bree, significantly objectified in the model lineup, that she is divested of the threat to create disequilibrium and tension that, according to Chion, the acousmetre always poses. Reduced to a fetishized being, the character no longer possesses any of the powers of the acousmatic presence, defined by Chion as ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience, and omnipotence. The acousmetre “has only to show itself—for the person speaking to inscribe his or her body inside the frame, in the visual field—for it to lose its power…” (Chion 27). In fact, after the point in which we first see the character onscreen, her voice is constantly proven wrong by the image, Bree’s actions belying her words.
We hear Bree tell her therapist that her fear of Klute makes her angry, makes her want to manipulate him, but we watch her melting under his gaze and touch and caringly returning his caresses. Later, she tells him to not “get hung up on [her],” even as she embraces him in bed. She says she could never give up her lifestyle for him, but Pakula shows us an image of her sitting at his feet, looking expectantly up at him like a child. This undermines the character’s control over the narrative, as we are always more likely to believe in the image rather than the voice. This belief, Gledhill explains, “rests on a number of factors: first, the powerful stereotype of romantic love inevitably takes precedence over these half-articulations of the problems of would-be independent women; second, the ideology of the eye and the camera as offering first-hand evidence of reality may support the image against the voice…” (Gledhill, “Klute 2” 109).
In marked contrast to the heroine, the detective and Cable (Charles Cioffi) are defined by their inscrutable silence. This is the ultimate source of their power, as words are shown to be deceptive, not adequate to the truth, and eventually dangerous. If the male protagonists say little, they are nonetheless given control over the image, their gaze assessing and ultimately controlling the scenes they survey. Whereas in classic noir the femme fatale or spider woman is connected to darkness, shot in silhouette, obscured by shadows, or shown in mirrors and reflections, conveying the overwhelming lack of unity and control, in Klute it is the men who are less visible (Place 41). Our first sight of Klute from Bree’s point of view comes through the peephole in her door, his face distorted by the lens, and later she peers at him through the barely cracked and still chained door so he is only partially in view. Throughout the film, both Klute and Cable are shot in darkness and half-light, in silhouette or hidden in shadows, and whenever they appear the movie abounds in jarring vertical camerawork, sudden plummeting downward zooms or ascensions in elevator shafts, imagery of netting, wire mesh, and claustrophobic rooms made vulnerable by skylights, suggesting insecurity, sudden submersion, and imprisonment. The mise-en-scene reinforces the point that the male characters represent danger and mystery more so than the female protagonist and that, while she is displayed and fetishized by the camera, they lie outside the realm of visual objectification.
In a change almost unprecedented in film noir, Klute’s final scenes pose the possibility of a fulfilled heterosexual relationship and of domesticity; the threat of female sexuality which was contained and punished in the classic noir cycle here is reduced through assimilation. Some have considered this ending as unambiguously positive. Giddis, for instance, writes,
“Klute—the healthy, giving, loving side of Bree—appears to have triumphed over Cable—the malignant, fearful, unfeeling side. Cable’s death signals the start of a new life for Bree. At the end she is leaving New York for a small town in Pennsylvania with Klute, apparently giving up prostitution for good. She seems to have emerged from her dark night of fear unified, whole” (33).
Without considering the ambivalence of the voiceover and the contradiction between image and sound, however, this reading is perhaps overly optimistic. “I know enough about myself,” Bree declares during the last scene of the film. “We’re so different,” she continues. “Whatever lies in store, it’s not going to be setting up housekeeping in Tuscarora and darning socks. I’d just go out of my mind.” This assertion of independence is completely contradicted by the image, in which Bree gathers her belonging and leaves her apartment with Klute; the voice is shown to be mistaken. Ironically, when they leave, Bree’s room is stripped bare except for the telephone, which no voice will answer.
In this essay I have attempted to show how character subjectivity and spectator positioning are constructed in Klute through both sound and image, and, significantly, through the disconnect between the two. I argue that this disjunction happens primarily along gender lines, as the female voice remains at odds with the (self-) objectifying of the female body throughout the film and the control exerted by the male gaze. While initially Bree Daniels appears as the epitome of the independent, modern, sexually liberated woman, the threat she poses is contained as her assertions are repeatedly undermined by what we see. I do not wish to suggest that there is a “correct” reading of Pakula’s movie as either a progressive film that empowers its main female character nor a work engaged solely in the ideological function of reinforcing the values of patriarchy. Instead, my hope is to express the inherent and constant tension embedded in the movie between these two types of discourses and suggest the different ways this tension is handled. The film responds to and gives voice to the repressed needs of our culture even as it tries to manage and resolve such anxieties.
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