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September 16, 2017

Presumed Innocent

by Franz Patrick


Presumed Innocent (1990)
★★ / ★★★★

Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) is a prosecuting attorney whose job, in its very nature, is to punish criminal behavior. The morning he comes into work, he learns that a colleague, a fellow lawyer named Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), has been found murdered. She is believed to have been strangled, raped, and beaten. The crime scene suggests there is no sign of her forced entry in her apartment. Sabich is assigned to handle her case by the big boss, Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy). However, soon the lawyer himself becomes a prime suspect. And since he has had sexual relations with the victim, is the case a classic crime of passion?

“Presumed Innocent,” directed by Alan J. Pakula, is beautifully shot and strongly acted but I never found it compelling. It is partly because of the pacing, so sluggish and at times desultory—the flashback involving Sabich and Polhemus’ affair does not help. Another reason is its eagerness to be regarded as a very serious, tight-lipped drama, from its solemn score to the decor of homes, offices, and courtroom. The material is not boring but the approach is certainly one-note.

Stories told from the defendant’s point of view should be thrilling, suspenseful, exciting. The picture, based on the novel by Scott Turow, appears to want to deliver the antithesis which might have been interesting if there had been intrigue in its skeleton. Instead, we are given expected recurring themes such as corruption behind city officials and lawyers readily changing masks.

What I found refreshing is Sabich’s wife played by Bonnie Bedelia. I enjoyed that there is no subplot involving her finding out about the affair once her husband is accused of murder. Instead, the focus is on her lingering feelings of insecurity and anger that perhaps her husband, even though he comes home to her, may still have feelings for another woman—even though the other woman is now dead. I wished the character, Barbara, had been given more scenes, especially in her interactions with Rusty, because she is arguably the person who is easiest to relate with.

The courtroom scenes are tedious and overdone. There is little tension because just about every piece of “evidence” presented by the prosecutors is speculation at best. Because the opposing team is weak, when the defense presents its case, it is not as interesting or engaging. Why not make the prosecutors real formidable so that we feel threatened that a potentially innocent man could end up in jail?

The film’s most critical misstep is the final five to ten minutes, when a character is shown having to explain everything to justify the driving force of the conflict. It should have given us doubt, not certainty. The former would have given the audience something to talk about while the latter closed the case. This decision is not parallel to the picture’s important themes.

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