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.
Main theme (from Presumed Innocent):