Monday, June 22, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Presumed Innocent" (1990)

One of my favorite things to do in this space is consider movies I saw contemporaneously and assess how they've aged. Some films are universally lauded or dismissed when they first come out. But a great many more need the remove of 20 years-plus to see how they stack up.

Which is not to say Father Time is always fair.

For my money, "Presumed Innocent" is one of the best crime dramas of its era. It features a Harrison Ford performance that ranks among his top two or three. It's got a magnificent supporting cast, led by Raul Julia in perhaps his most affecting screen role. And it was a capstone on the career of writer/director Alan J. Pakula, whose work included "All the President's Men" and "Sophie's Choice."

And yet "Presumed Innocent" has faded nearly to the vanishing point in the public consciousness. It hardly ever gets talked about these days, and it failed to receive a single Academy Award nomination -- in a year in which "The Godfather Part III" and "Dick Tracy" got seven nods apiece.

It's not available on any of the major streaming services, and the only DVD I could find was a shitty transfer that was not even enhanced for widescreen televisions -- meaning the image only occupied the center portion of the screen.

Still, I found it just as enthralling as I did 25 years ago.

It was based on a best-selling novel, the first by Scott Turow, a lawyer-turned-novelist whose books put John Grisham's to shame in terms of storytelling and prose. Producer Sydney Pollack bought the rights for a million bucks before it was even published. Add in Pakula's name and the cast they assembled, and the film had "prestige project" written all over it.

Narratively, it's pretty straightforward. Rusty Sabich (Ford) is a career prosecutor investigating the murder of a female colleague, who finds himself caught up in poisonous political intrigue and accused of the crime himself. The first half is taken up with the inquiry -- and the circle of buzzards slowly gathering over Rusty's head -- while the second half more or less all happens in the courtroom.

In the book, Turow undertakes the considerable challenge of a first-person narrative in which the guilt of the main character is left open to question until the final pages. Turow burrows very deep into his main characters' psyches, revealing complex thoughts and emotional patterns you don't usually see in popular fiction.

The film adaptation -- Pakula wrote the screenplay with Frank Pierson ("Dog Day Afternoon") -- doubles down on this storytelling device, leaving it until the final scene before heavily implicating Rusty as the murderer, before revealing it was his jealous wife who did the deed.

(Sorry, the sell-by date on spoilers expires somewhere well south of a quarter-century.)

In 1990 Harrison Ford was very much a heroic leading man, edging up to 50 -- an age at which many of Hollywood's more ambitious stars have felt the urge to explore morally ambiguous material. The best example is James Stewart, capped by his portrayal of a sexually obsessed policeman in "Vertigo."

I think Pakula was making a very conscious decision to leverage the fundamental decency of Ford's star persona -- using it to make the audience root for Rusty, even as all the evidence points to his guilt. The fact that Rusty previously had an affair with the victim, Caroline Polhemus (a terrific Greta Scacchi), and his wife, Barbara, is endearingly played by Bonnie Bedelia, further stack the deck in making it hard for audience to convict or acquit him in their own minds.

If they'd tried this with another actor with a retinue of villainous roles in his past -- say, Jeremy Irons, to pull a name out of a hat -- I don't think the picture would've worked nearly as well. The main dynamic Pakula has going in is making the audience wonder if Rusty is a victim or a victimizer.

Ford gives a masterful performance, playing weak and angry with the same aplomb he did dashing and valiant. Though his part is largely reactive in the second half -- graciously ceding the spotlight to Julia, who plays his attorney -- you can always see the animation going on behind Rusty's face. His Roman-style haircut, so popular at that time, lends him a touch of the martial.

"You always kept the cork in too tight," is how a (supposed) friend describes him.

Having reread the book again recently, I was struck by how closely the film follows its plot. Still, there are a number of notable divergences.

The movie shows some things not depicted in the book, such as Caroline's funeral, while eliminating tertiary characters and story threads, such as her son, a disaffected college student who barely knew her. Pakula & Co. pump up the sex considerably -- including a steamy romp in the office that never happens in the novel -- while also adding scenes with Rusty's son, Nat (Jesse Bradford), to humanize him as a devoted father.

The character of Barbara is probably the biggest alteration, transformed from a shrewish harpy into a deeply depressed housewife who still clings needily to the shredded fabric of her marriage. Asked by Rusty how she would testify if put on the witness stand, she practically pleads: "I'd say you're the only man I ever loved... and still do."

An important flashback involves the case of Wendell, a 5-year-old boy tortured by his mother by putting his head in a vise. It's discussed in the book but vividly depicted in the movie. It's vital because this is the event that brings Rusty and Caroline together, first as co-counsel and then as lovers. Joseph Mazzello -- best remembered as half of the terrified siblings in "Jurassic Park," aka the kid who gets zapped on the electrical fence -- is pitch perfect as the terrified little boy.

John Williams' restrained musical score, highlighted by a trill of single piano notes, adds greatly to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the proceedings. Ditto for the stark cinematography by the great Gordon Willis, notable for its noir-ish use of sharp, almost harsh layers of contrast.

Julia, as attorney Alejandro "Sandy" Stern, makes the most of a magnificently constructed character. Turow is very specific and detailed in his descriptions of him, touted as the best defense attorney in Kindle County, the fictional setting for all of his novels (roughly akin to Philadelphia, in my reckoning). Stern has courtly manners, but a razor-sharp mind and an instinct for intimidating his opponents.

Pakula and Pierson play up the Stern character even more, letting him reveal bits of information contained elsewhere in the book, that elevate him almost to Jedi-like status. Indeed, Turow focused his next novel, "The Burden of Proof," entirely on Stern. (It was turned into a television mini-series, alas, starring another actor.)

The rest of the supporting cast is, simply, superlative. Paul Winfield is magisterial and funny as the judge, Larren L. Lytle. Unlike other courtroom dramas where the lawyers are allowed to holler and fume, Lytle keeps a tight control on the proceedings. And he is revealed to have his own dark past that affects his current case.

John Spencer, who's best known for playing authority figures, is solid and authentic as the pimpish Lipranzer, Rusty's right-hand man on the police force. Joe Grifasi, who like Julia is not introduced until about halfway through the movie, summons the fervent zealotry of Tommy Molto, the prosecutor heading up the case and Rusty's chief interlocutor.

Tom Mardirosian nails the facile, shallow charm of Nico Della Guardia, the upstart rival for Prosecuting Attorney who ends up defeating Rusty's boss, Raymond Horgan, in the impending election due in no small part to his chief deputy being accused of murder. It is a testament to the cleverness of the book and movie that the election, which hangs like a shroud over the film's first half, is disposed with off-screen after Rusty is charged.

Brian Dennehy brings a brash confidence to Horgan, a true believer who's been swallowed by 12 years in politics. "In the end, all you can do is try to hang on to the fuckin' job," he laments, anticipating the wake of his public career. Horgan is a classic Irish-American back-slapping politico, who always knows on which his side is bread is buttered.

A young Bradley Whitford has a small, key part as Stern's chief assistant, Jamie Kemp. (In Turow's creation, he's a former rock star-turned-apprentice lawyer -- who's begging for his own novel treatment.) And Sab Shimono is terrific as "Painless" Kumagai, the buffoon of a coroner who is firmly in Della Guardia's pocket.

"Presumed Innocent" ends its morality tale with Rusty Sabich a free man, yet imprisoned by the fate imposed on him by his own choices. Though he did not commit the murder, he committed the sins that led up to it, as revealed in Ford's emotionally roiling final narration:

"I am a prosecutor. I have spent my life in the assignment of blame. With all deliberation and intent, I reached for Caroline. I cannot pretend it was an accident. I reached for Caroline, and set off that insane mix of rage and lunacy that led one human being to kill another. There was a crime. There was a victim. And there is punishment."

And so why has this wonderful film been judged with the ultimate punishment that can be inflicted on a work of cinema -- being forgotten?

Perhaps it is something akin to our criminal justice system, which purports to favor letting 100 guilty men be acquitted rathern than convicting one innocent -- yet we know it still happens. Some forgettable films endure, while worthy ones languish in the prison of our failing memories. They just need a crusader to help bring them back it into the light.

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