Presumed Innocent (1990)


When a prosecutor, Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi, Jefferson in Paris), is found raped and murdered, Chief Deputy District Attorney, Rusty Sabitch (Harrison Ford, Witness), is assigned to the case. However, Sabitch becomes the prime suspect in the investigation after it’s discovered that he had a clandestine love affair with the victim.

“You understand what happened had to happen.”

Alan J. Pakula’s Presumed Innocent is one-third murder-mystery, one-third court-room drama and one-third romantic obsession. I’m not sure what third I liked best — I enjoyed all three sections. All in all, the movie weaves all of these elements together into an interesting, brooding, distressing piece of modern film noir.

In a sense, Presumed Innocent is a 1970s movie made in the 1990s. I say this because the movie reminded me of Watergate-era thrillers like Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Sidney Pollack’s Three Days Of The Condor (1975) and Pakula’s own The Parallax View (1974). Like all these movies, Presumed Innocent explores the idea of being powerless in a morally chaotic world, a popular theme in the ’70s.

The film was even shot in the chiaroscuro manner of a ’70s paranoid thriller. As usual, Gordon “Prince of Darkness” Willis’s (Klute and The Godfather I-III) cinematography is gorgeously Rembrantesque. Willis creates a world where people come in and out of shadows, literally and figuratively. It’s a tremendously effective way to reinforce the story’s constant allusion to the coexistence of good and evil.

Complementing Willis’s somber images is John Williams’s (Jaws) piano-foward music score. The film gave Williams a chance to show his versatility. Presumed Innocent is dour and actionless, so Williams had to come up with something less conspicuous. The minimalist music score captures the tone of the film to a tee.

Apart from its technical brilliance, Presumed Innocent offers viewers a rare chance to see Harrison Ford in an unheroic role. It is, however, a character hard to warm up to — while I appreciated Ford’s desire to stretch his acting muscles, I found him a little too remote. I had some difficulty rooting for such a dry, unemotional character.

Instead, I was drawn to the excellent supporting cast. Raul Julia (Kiss of the Spider Woman) steals scene after scene as Ford’s cunning defense lawyer. Unlike most actors who play lawyers in films, Julia resists the temptation to chew up the scenery — the actor’s performance is a textbook on the power of understatement.

I also loved Paul Winfield’s (Sounder) no-nonsense judge. The great Brian Dennehy (First Blood) is Ford’s cagey boss, and sexy Greta Scacchi plays the murdered woman in flashbacks. Best of all is Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard), who plays Ford’s long-suffering wife. It’s a cliché role, but she succeeded somehow in making something interesting out of a boring character — Bedelia has one mesmerizing monologue. It’s really sad that neither she nor Julia received an Oscar nomination.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

During its initial theatrical run, Presumed Innocent garnered attention for its shocking finale. In retrospect, that was both a blessing and a curse. Word of mouth about the surprise ending turned the film into a smash hit. But it also gave the false impression that the movie was nothing but a gimmicky thriller. The film is better than that — it’s a well-crafted tale of modern pessimism. Followed by two sequels: a TV mini-series, The Burden of Proof (1992), and a TV movie, Innocent (2011), with Bill Pullman (Spaceballs) in Harrison Ford’s old role. Color, 128 minutes, Rated R.

This is my contribution to The John Williams Blogathon, hosted by Taking Up Room.

Main theme (from Presumed Innocent):

40 responses to “Presumed Innocent (1990)

      • I liked Presumed Innocent easily enough for how it intentionally underplayed itself. It was never too in-your-face with its mystery or drama and the revelation worked even better as a result. For one of many films at that time about the consequences of marital infidelity, it was certainly a rare chance to see Harrison Ford in a specifically unheroic role. Thanks, Eric, for your review.

        Liked by 3 people

        • I liked it more than Fatal Attraction, a movie that left me frustrated. Play Misty for Me is probably my favorite of its kind. I also like Blake Edwards’s 10, which is more intelligent than what it gets credit for.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: The John Williams Blogathon Has Arrived – Taking Up Room·

  2. Another movie that I watch over and over. Also I read the book a couple of times. Good review, Eric. Ford might not have won an Oscar but he has made so many movies that fall in the category of my favorites.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Saw this SO long ago, but still remember (and agree with) almost everything you mentioned above, like Ford’s sort of “over acting” and Bonnie B’s boring role–except for that end monologue. (SPOILER ALERT) I remember her calm, faraway look as she confessed it all.
    Man, do I miss Brian Dennehy. He really was one of the greats.
    And Harrison Ford–I’m not sure I would consider him a great actor, he’s very good, obviously, knows his craft–but man, what a career that guy has had! It’s almost mind-boggling all the classics he’s been in.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I agree, scifimike70! Those are three of my favs, actually. He did pretty well in The Fugitive, I think, except he may have been a little over the top sometimes…?

        Liked by 2 people

      • Ford has said that The Mosquito Coast contains his best film work, and I agree with him. He is surprisingly believable as a really unlikable character. Sure enough, the movie wasn’t a hit — I don’t think people were willing to accept him in that kind of role.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Cool review, Eric! For me, this film goes down in history as the one time EVER in my life I guessed the conclusion/twist right off the bat…I mean, very early into the film it hit me that “it’s this person”, and it was, and I normally never figure these things out, even by movie’s end (I try to go in with – and keep – a blank mind, and let the movie’s mystery play itself out). Anyway, you’ve got me wanting to see it again…even though, yes, I’m sure I’ll once again guess the killer right off the bat!

    Liked by 2 people

    • WOW! I’m impressed. I didn’t think it was possible to predict the twist! I thought they made it impossible for the audience to figure it out. BTW, have you seen What Lies Beneath, another Ford movie with a jaw-dropping twist? Don’t tell me you guessed that one too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know, it was weird…I was a cinematic genius for a split-second! But I didn’t think anything of it, really, until the movie went along, and I kept thinking, “You know, everything’s falling into place…I wonder if it WILL be that person.”

        And I saw ‘What Lies Beneath’ back when it was first released, but I don’t remember anything about it except for…a bathtub, with water spilling out? And no, I didn’t guess the twist in that one…I was too busy savoring the other one!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I always thought this movie was a bit under-rated for Alan J. Pakula, Harrison Ford, and John Williams. If you asked people to make a “Top Five” for the work of all three, this movie probably doesn’t get mentioned. But I believe it’s certainly worthy of being thought of that highly!

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    • You are absolutely right. This movie is rarely discussed today. The irony is that it was a huge hit, one of Pakula’s (and Ford’s) biggest moneymakers, yet it has been overshadowed by less successful movies.

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