Joseph Losey’s cool, elegant 1977 thriller “Mr. Klein” (reissued to theaters late last year and soon to be released on DVD in the Criterion Collection) is, like many of his movies, a slow walk through a labyrinth of gradually developing dread.
At his best, in such movies as “These Are the Damned,” “Accident” and “The Servant” (the first a Hammer science-fiction drama, the latter two written by Harold Pinter), Losey distills the enigmatic and the suggestive into a satisfying blend of social comment and entertainment.
“Mr. Klein” achieves this by starting as an attack on moral opportunism and ending up as a mistaken-identity mystery redolent of a horror film. Alain Delon is Robert Klein, an immaculately groomed art dealer in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942. He deals in paintings and sculptures being sold by Jewish refugees needing cash. He pays the refugees next to nothing and then resells the art at a huge profit.
His wealthy, playboy lifestyle, including a palatial apartment and a mistress, suddenly crashes one morning when he finds a copy of a Jewish newspaper on his doorstep. Klein, who is Catholic and Alsatian by birth, ironically sympathizes with the Jews he cons, but he fears the authorities will come to suspect that he is Jewish.
The script by Franco Solinas, the Italian writer who worked on Gillo Pontecorvo’s incendiary political films “Burn” and “Battle of Algiers” and on Costa-Gavras’ equally intense “State of Siege,” here smoothly and methodically peels back the layers of Klein’s confidence and security as he sinks deeper into the plot machinery that conspires against him.
As Klein investigates the mystery of the newspaper delivery, he discovers what might be a secret plot to ruin him concocted by another man named Robert Klein. This man (who is never shown) apparently bears a strong resemblance to him and may be a top lieutenant in the Jewish resistance.
When Klein tells his friends about his suspicions, they think he is coming unglued. Klein reports the newspaper delivery to the police, but they believe he is a Jewish art thief trying to throw them off his trail by inventing another Robert Klein.
As Klein grown more desperate to unravel the mystery, he learns the other Klein leaves in a rat-infested apartment house but apparently is having a dalliance with a wealthy mistress (Jeanne Moreau, hitting all the right notes) who may or may not be Jewish and whose chateau shows blank spaces where paintings might have been hung.
Losey sustains this extremely suspenseful cat-and-mouse game, including a riveting scene of Klein telephoning his double, for much of the film’s length, but the director’s subsequent turn toward the fragility of identity tips the movie into a “Twilight Zone”-ish climax that isn’t as disturbing or convincing as it should be.
Although “Mr. Klein” stumbles, it is one of Losey’s most seductive films. It is strongly visual, subtly comic and contains ideas that are intriguing if not especially frightening.