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The best (and worst) classic flicks and cult favorites

Warner Brothers, 1971
Starring: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Charles Cioffi, and Roy Scheider
Director: Alan J. Pakula

The plot: A Pennsylvania executive disappears, and the only clue is an obscene letter addressed to call girl Bree Daniels (Fonda). After six months of dead ends, a colleague of the missing man, Peter Cable (Cioffi) hires family friend and detective John Klute (Sutherland) to investigate. Klute begins tailing Bree, tapping her phone, following her tricks. Bree seems cocky and liberated by her lifestyle, but reveals her emptiness in sessions with her psychiatrist. As Klute moves in on the killer, Bree’s life is in danger.

Why it’s good: How’s this for unlikely? A tawdry mystery about a top-tier call girl in analysis; an ugly series of murdered hookers; a repressed, religious cop with an ugly name, and to headline it, a practically-blacklisted star who married a weird French film director (Roger Vadim), appeared in some ill-considered flops (Barbarella, Godard’s Tout va Bien) and mouthed off relentlessly about the Vietnam War. Could you make this up? The script, by Andy and Dave Lewis — like Five Easy Pieces, Harold and Maude, and Stay Hungry” — is part and parcel of a time when Hollywood allowed intelligence to run rampant. Director Pakula had served as producer on some fine work, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, but had only helmed The Sterile Cukoo, something of a misfire. The unapologetic paranoia of his touch with Klute would serve him well in his follow-ups, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men. Jane Fonda had a fine Hollywood pedigree and a rep for light stuff (Tall Story, Barefoot in the Park), but, by the time Pakula lobbied for her in 1970, she was studio poison. She realized what was at stake, and turned in the performance of her career, which won her a best actress Oscar from a surprised and disgruntled Academy. Donald Sutherland presents that rarest of acting gifts — underplayed restraint. He is magnificent, as he was in M*A*S*H, Start the Revolution Without Me, and Fellini’s Casanova. The score by Michael Small sounds like the tiny, cold fingers of terror skipping up the back of one’s neck. Roy Scheider does a disquieting turn as a pimp, but the unsung hero of this fine film is Charles Cioffi. Mostly a TV guy and still working now at 79, he shows a startling — and disturbing — understanding of the psyche of a sexual psychopath, with layers of self-awareness, defensiveness, weak guilt, and self-disgust. His final scene with Fonda is a revelation.

Should I watch it? Like Chinatown three years later, this movie could not be made today. Movies seemed so damned adult in the ’70s; obviously this could not last for very long, as 1,000-screen openings and the overseas action and teen markets took off. Pakula securing Fonda was as fraught as Coppola insisting on the truly washed-up Brando for The Godfather. She knew this might be her last shot. The cachet of her Oscar win was parlayed into further success in Coming Home (another Oscar), Julia, and a saccharine turn with her father Henry in On Golden Pond. Sutherland continues to maintain a fine dignity and admirable, active career. Pakula died in a bizarre, random accident in 1998 — a metal pipe, kicked up by a truck on the Long Island Expressway, slammed through his windshield, killing him instantly. The Turner Home Entertainment DVD has no commentary but offers a good letterbox transfer and a very cool promotional film and trailer.