A good courtroom thriller operates on two levels. On the one hand, it is an invitation to play by the rules: to listen to testimony from various witnesses and to carefully reflect on the arguments of the lawyers. At the same time, it is an enticement to cheat: to eavesdrop on bedroom confidences or brief, off-the-record conversations in the prosecutor’s limousine. Such extrajudicial evidence can be deceiving—all of the clues are there, but so, too, are all of the red herrings. Presumed Innocent is brimming with both. Right from the movie’s opening scene, in which deputy prosecuting attorney Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) says that it is critical to “determine what really happened,” Presumed Innocent offers only a very few certainties— among them, that truth is elusive, that innocence is relative and that, in a really good courtroom thriller, it is best to presume nothing.
Chicago lawyer Scott Turow’s 1987 bestselling novel, Presumed Innocent, seems in many ways a natural for the big screen. The
book presents not only a stunningly executed plot, but also a colorful ensemble of memorable, multilayered characters. And in the hands of director Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice) and a fine cast that also includes Greta Scacchi, Bonnie Bedelía and Brian Dennehy, those characters come fully to life. The result is a movie that, true to Turow’s novel, succeeds at evoking both the gritty world of criminal law and the darker regions of the human heart.
After Sabich’s solemn opening monologue, the story moves to the busy offices of Raymond Horgan (Dennehy), chief prosecuting attorney for fictional Kindle County. Horgan is distressed about the murder the previous evening of the beautiful, gifted lawyer Carolyn Polhemus (Scacchi), who had been a prominent member of his staff. Already, photographs of the body are making their way around the office, and they provide graphic evidence of a gruesome crime. The perpetrator had struck Polhemus on the head with a sharp, heavy object—and then bound her legs, arms and neck in such a way that intercourse, which appears to have occurred, may have caused her strangulation.
Horgan is concerned that the murder will mar his campaign for reelection. It is only two weeks until election day, and Horgan’s chief political rival, Nico Della Guardia (Tom Mardirosian), has already begun to portray Polhemus’s death as an example of the chief prosecutor’s inability to fight crime. Determined to find the murderer quickly, Horgan assigns his right-hand man, Sabich, to the case. Successful, handsome, the husband of a beautiful academic (Bedelia), and devoted father to his son, Nat Qesse Bradford), Sabich appears for all the world to be the white knight who can solve the case. But there is doubt about whether he really wants to. Sabich, it turns out, had his own reasons for getting rid of Polhemus. Only a few weeks before, the voluptuous blond attorney had abruptly ended a steamy affair with him, leaving the formerly self-assured Sabich broken and bitter.
But it soon becomes clear that other characters besides Sabich are harboring secrets. His investigation of Polhemus’s murder soon reveals that she, too, had several things to hide. Sabich was not her only office fling. And shortly before her death, she had begun working secretly on a convoluted bribery case involving Horgan and Della Guardia’s right-hand man, a lawyer named Tommy Molto Qoe Grifasi), as well as Polhemus herself. Meanwhile, the movie skips back to Sabich’s romance with Polhemus, revealing a woman who may have been sexually aroused by defending a young boy tortured with a vise grip.
Sabich has only begun to piece together the clues when Della Guardia charges him with the murder. The subsequent courtroom scenes are often electric, as high drama competes with the laughable ineptitude of prosecutors Della Guardia and Malto, and the wry observations of the presiding judge, Larren Lyttle, engagingly played by Paul Winfield. Raul Julia, meanwhile, brings an almost stately air to the proceedings with his muted portrayal of Sabich’s brilliant lawyer, Sandy Stem. Meticulous in his preparation of Sabich’s defence, Stem is willing to subvert the proceedings if it will promote his client’s cause. But it is Ford’s compelling portrayal of the embattled Sabich that provides the movie’s focal point. Inscrutable but oddly vulnerable, the character remains likable and sympathetic even as his innocence comes into question.
But the movie is most powerful in its final minutes, when it leaves those gripping courtroom scenes behind and examines questions of guilt and innocence, love and rage, revenge and retribution—and the impotence of the legal system to apprehend the dark logic of emotions. Not content simply to solve the mystery at hand, Presumed Innocent explores the deeper secrets of the human soul, and it does so with style and intelligence.
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