Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Presumed Innocent

Based on the Scott Turow novel of the same name, Presumed Innocent was a bit of a novelty when it was released in 1990.  It is a legal drama that was released mid-summer, amongst all the explosions and blockbusters in movies like Total Recall, Robocop 2, Die Hard 2, and Another 48 Hours.  To say that summer was a little light on intelligent movies is an understatement.  Nevertheless, this quiet drama held its own and became a hit in its own right.  This is also one of the biggest movies at the time to take an interest in forensic science; while I think we have all been CSI-ed to death by now, it was a pretty risky move at the time.  Out of the context of an unusually testosterone-fueled summer and after forensic knowledge has become somewhat commonplace, though, can Presumed Innocent stand the test of time?

Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), a county prosecutor, has been raped and murdered.  Her boss, Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy), is in the midst of the fight of his professional career as he tries to hold his position through the upcoming election; Horgan can't allow the murder of one of his people go unsolved and still win the election.  Knowing this, Horgan puts his best man, Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) on the case.  Rusty reluctantly takes it.  He had a secret affair with Carolyn that ended only a few months earlier; he's made it up to his wife, Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia), since then, but she's not too happy with Carolyn being on her husband's mind, dead or not.  As the evidence trickles in, it becomes apparent that the state should have a pretty good case against whoever they accuse --- they have semen in the victim and a glass with fingerprints found at the scene of the crime --- but the crime scene has an unnatural, staged feel to it.  The police become convinced that the perpetrator must have some knowledge of crime scene investigations and did their best to cover their tracks.  Who would have such knowledge?  A police officer, a private detective, or a prosecutor that had a romantic relationship with the victim, perhaps?

What makes Presumed Innocent work is its approach.  Many times, legal dramas take disinterested main characters and have them defend someone against a case that is overwhelmingly against them; surprise, surprise, they tend to beat the rap and every third of fourth one of these movies reveals that the defendant was actually a bad person.  This movie skips the intermediate character, and that makes it a lot more interesting.  You don't know whether or not Rusty Sabich has committed the murder in question, so seeing him assemble a defense makes the situation much more immediate.  This isn't a moral tale, either, so Rusty's guilt is almost beside the point.  This is a movie where circumstantial evidence damned a man and how he fought back against that very frightening situation.  After all, is there anything more frightening (in the legal system) than being found guilty of something you didn't do?

Harrison Ford turns in a typically understated and accomplished performance in the lead role.  Since his character must be believable as either an innocent or guilty man, he had the difficult task of playing a character that must be likable, but not too likable.  When in doubt, Ford tries to sound tired, and it's effective.  The rest of the cast was suitable for this drama, but I wouldn't say that any of their performances were particularly noteworthy.  Brian Dennehy comes across as a total bastard in the courtroom, but aside from that, the main supporting cast members (Raul Julia and Bonnie Bedelia) are solid, if unimpressive.  The movie also has a number of recognizable actors in small supporting roles.  Veteran actors Paul Winfield, John Spencer, and Joe Grifasi all take on simple roles of law and order.  There are also two child actors of note in the film.  You might recognize the abused child in the film, Joseph Mazzello, as the annoying kid from Jurassic Park.  Here, you get to hear Harrison Ford slowly repeat the phrase "Mommy hurt my head" several times in reference to him.  Jesse Bradford plays Rusty's son and, for some unfathomable reason, has pennant for both the Packers and Vikings up on his bedroom walls; as a Bears fan, I began hoping Rusty was guilty after I noticed that. 
That was, like, months ago.  Live in the now, jerks.
I liked Alan J. Pakula's work as the director and co-writer of the screenplay.  He kept the technical jargon to a bare minimum, making this a story that was less about the facts as it was the perception of them.  That was a good choice, especially at the time, because scientific terminology can cause a serious case of audience eye-glazing.  I thought he handled the actors well; there is no furniture-biting courtroom scene, the legal addresses were not overly dramatic --- this is a drama that feels surprisingly realistic.  The story requires a few sex scenes, which Pakula provides, but they're not terribly explicit, which also keeps the focus on the drama.

If Presumed Innocent was a ship, it would have nothing but smooth sailing.  That can be good, or that can be boring.  While this is a pretty effective drama, it is one that very quiet and realistic (read: a little dull).  There are no standout characters, the dialogue isn't very memorable, and the camerawork is conventional.  This is a well-made movie, but it depends on you being fascinated by the story.  If, like me, you are able to quickly deduce the basics of the crime, the film loses some of its luster.  I'm not blaming the film for that; as time has passed, the average American has gained familiarity with this sort of evidence and the ways it can be manipulated.  I can appreciate the movie as being pretty good in a number of different ways, but when all is said and done, police procedurals have dulled the effect of this story, making it feel older than a drama this well-made should.


  1. What a wonderful book! What characterizes this novel is Turow's careful attention to detail and his fine characterizations. Rusty Sabich, is a three dimensional character. Even the minor characters are interesting. Far superior to other novels in this genre, I highly recommend this book. Fine writing and thoughtful characterization is melded with edge-of-your-seat suspense and a thought provoking ending. I was also fascinated by the intricate workings of the criminal defense process. Mr. Turow has obviously been there and he give us a ring-side seat.

  2. I've got nothing against Turow as a writier --- he has definitely written some entertaining crime stories in his day --- I just lament having to downgrade a film because what makes it special has become commonplace. This film might have blown my mind if I saw it in theaters in 1990. Oh well, it's still good stuff.