It's almost a shame that Scott Turow's novel Presumed Innocent was such a smash two years ago, because several million readers of that best-seller will unfortunately already have had the original and compelling plot revealed to them.
Still, there's hope for those who have already ruined the summer's best drama for themselves. No matter how vividly you have acted out the book's story in your mind, chances are that the director, Alan J. Pakula, and cast of players have done it better in this movie.
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Produced by Sydney Pollack and Mark Rosenberg
Be warned, however, that the opening scene is not representative of the rest of the film. In a flat and uninspired directorial decision the movie begins with a camera shot of an empty courtroom, and a voice-over by Harrison Ford. Ford does the typical introductory over-dramatization: "I am a prosecutor. I put people behind bars..." No, this will not be the first movie you have seen that focuses on harried big-city lawyers battling each other. Give the movie some time, though, because it does become steadily more intriguing.
To its credit, there aren't any gimmicks in this plot, and you would be hard pressed to find another crime movie that relies so little on coincidence. Nearly all the important actions are motivated by peculiarities of characters' personalities, and both the criminal and gory details of the murder in the film are remarkably believeable.
Set in the midst of a heated campaign for the district attorney's seat, the movie begins with incumbent Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy) losing ground to the challenger, Nico Della Guardia (Tom Mardirosian). Horgan needs something quick and sensational, he thinks, to halt his slide.
Horgan senses such an opportunity when one of his own prosecutors, Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi) is found bludgeoned to death in her apartment one night after seemingly being raped and tied up. Feeling that the balance of his career as a prosecutor rests on this case, Horgan assigns Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford), his chief deputy and right hand man, to investigate it. Sabich, a married man who was actually obsessed with Polhemus after she terminated their secret affair, protests only mildly before accepting the assignment.
Only a short while into the investigation, Sabich is called into Horgan's office, where several colleagues inform him of their own suspect: Sabich himself. Sabich appears incredulous at the accusation, but enough clues soon surface to indict him and bring him to trial. Because his own blood type matches up with that of the semen found in Polhemus, and fibers from the carpet in his house match those found in her apartment, Sabich must undergo invesigative scrutiny that leaves the viewer unsure about his innocence or guilt until the conclusion.
It is not simply the thoughtful and careful script based on Turow's novel that make this movie a success. Much of the credit belongs to the editors for their effective juxtaposition of flashbacks and present action, and placement of each successive scene.
Such finished technique makes Sabich's obsession with Polhemus especially convincing. A shot of a blood and guts photo of the woman's corpse almost immediately and certainly disturbing cuts away to the scene in which a laughing Horgan introduces Sabich and Polhemus. The scene then quickly shifts to Polhemus showing a molested child to Sabich in the hope that he will take on the child's case, and a few clips later Sabich and Polhemus are undressing on his desk at work. The progression of such scenes makes Sabich's memories quite powerful, makes his tears seem genuine when the camera finally returns to him holding the photograph in his wife's presence.
But much of the credit for the scenes the director and editors so carefully craft has to go to the actors. The entire cast gives strong performances, but Ford stands out. Because of Ford's characteristic calm in nearly all his other movies (and supposedly off-screen, too) he is an excellent choice for Sabich. The moments when Sabich actually does get frustrated, or lose control, or yell, contrast powerfully with his character's general self-restraint. When Sabich discovers the county medical examiner is falsifying records, for example, his voice rises and shakes. A single tear trickles slowly down his face near the end of the movie, and the drama Ford creates seems a lot stronger than that manufactured by a typical compilation of 100-decibel Hollywood wails.
Perhaps Ford's only major fault is that he occasionally sounds like the movie star he has become. Sabich's careful, noncommittal reply to reporters as he leaves the courtroom is all too reminiscent of how Ford approaches interviews in real-life. And Sabich's telling his wife to "go get 'em, kid," as she approaches a job interview seems more like what Ford would say to a five-year old after dispensing an autograph.
Paul Winfield (as Judge Larren Lyttle) is another standout actor. His character serves up surprisingly deadpan humor that doubles as comic relief in the movie's otherwise heavy atmosphere. Discounting as evidence a facetious admittal of the crime--Sabich's "Yeah, you're right"--Lyttle says, "If Mr. Sabich had come from my part of town, he'd have said, 'Yo mama.'" The wit, which is omnipresent with constant references to Della Guardia as "Mr. Dee Lay Guardia," add complexity to his character of an otherwise tough-nosed "Judge Motherfucker," as one ex-con who previously bribed him describes.
The only predictable or tired aspect of the movie's conclusion is the device chosen to end it. Ford predictably does his voice-over while the same empty courtroom from the opening clip is again shown on screen.
While the technique may not be original, however, it is certainly appropriate. The return to the place he began is a pithy symbol of his rise and fall, providing the film with a sense of "ashes to ashes." His words seem simple, but the concluding phrase of "There was a crime, there was a victim, and there is punishment," in fact belies the movie's remarkable complexity.