When Pennsylvania businessman Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli) goes missing, his wife hires John Klute (Sutherland), a family friend and private detective, to find him. The only real lead is some obscene letters Gruneman had allegedly written to Bree Daniels (Fonda), a call girl in New York City who was once high-priced, but after being busted by the police is struggling to make ends meet. Klute tracks down Bree, who reluctantly agrees to help trace Gruneman's whereabouts.
Fonda won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
This film contains examples of:
- All Men Are Perverts: Played straight — Bree describes some of the acts she puts on for clients, and especially played straight with Peter Cable, the real killer — but also averted, particularly with Klute, to the amusement of Bree:Bree: Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie. You could get a perfectly good dishwasher for that.
- Alone with the Psycho: The climax
- Berserk Button: Klute freaks when he sees Bree and her pimp at her apartment.
- Big Applesauce: Though the film starts out in Pennsylvania, most of it takes place in Manhattan.
- Bluffing the Murderer: Klute has figured out that Peter Cable is the killer but has no evidence. So he makes up a story that he's about to acquire an incriminating address book, in order to smoke him out.
- Chekhov's Gun: The audiotape that plays over the opening credits.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Subverted at first — Bree is very cynical about her job — and then Doubly Subverted when she falls in love with Klute.
- Last-Name Basis: Klute.
- Misplaced Accent: In-Universe, Bree affects an Irish accent when auditioning for the role of Joan of Arc. The play director comments on how "interesting" her accent is.
- Never My Fault: Cable blames Bree and other prostitutes for his horrific acts, claiming that they preyed on his hidden fantasies that shouldn't have been unlocked.
- Never Trust a Title: The film is named after Klute, but Bree is definitely the main character and focal point.
- Pet the Dog: One of Bree's clients is an elderly garment factory owner who's only gone on vacation for one week in his life, so all she does is pretend to have just come back from an exotic vacation (which she describes in detail) and let him look at her breasts.
- Platonic Prostitution: One of Bree's regular clients is an old man, who just wants companionship from her.
- Police Are Useless: Played straight at first (which is why Klute gets hired in the first place), but ultimately subverted; Klute works closely with the police once he's in the city.
- Reminiscing About Your Victims: Peter Cable does this:Peter Cable: I have no idea what I'm going to do. I'm so deeply puzzled. I've done terrible things, I've killed three people. Really, I don't consider myself a terrible man, no more than-than others. See, Tom Gruneman had discovered me. We were here on business together and he found me and Jane McKenna in my hotel room. She had become hysterical and she started screaming and I guess I hit her. I don't actually recall, it all happened so quickly. Anyway, she fell and hit her head and that's when Tom came in the room. I guess he must have heard her screaming. But I never understood really why she... she did that, she had never screamed before. And it was the revulsion and the contempt that I saw in his face. And the certainty that sooner or later he would use it against me within the company. And I tried to endure that as long as I possibly could, you see.
- The Quiet One: Klute.
- Secondary Character Title: A borderline example, as Donald Sutherland is billed second, and Bree is clearly the main character in the story.
- The Shrink: Bree goes to a therapist, and her sessions are windows on her thinking.
- The Stoic: Klute rarely shows emotions or even changes his expression. We see him smile twice in the whole film. This makes the scene where he snaps all the more effective (see Berserk Button above).
- Toplessness from the Back: Provided by Jane Fonda, but verging on Fan Disservice as it happens while she's servicing a john.
- Vehicle Vanish: Cable vanishes this way behind a passing bus while chasing Bree in the streets.
- Wake Up Fighting: Bree, in her strung out state when nursed by Klute.