* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Written by Frank Pierson and Pakula
With Harrison Ford, Bonnie Bedelia, Greta Scacchi, Brian Dennehy, and Raul Julia.
Perhaps my expectations for Presumed Innocent were unrealistically high. Amid the summer’s mob of brain-bashing rabble-rousers, this movie promised to be grown-up fare, the work of a cast and crew with formidable artistic credentials. It comes as a particular disappointment to find that this sluggish whodunit is as vapid, deceitful, and insidious as any of this season’s childish, lowbrow blockbusters, and arguably less enjoyable.
In preparing reviews, I usually make an effort to read the novels on which movies are based. But a press release from Warners urging critics not to reveal the movie’s denouement convinced me that to give the picture a fair shake I’d be wise to postpone reading Scott Turow’s 1987 best-seller until after the screening. Had I bothered to read the book–which I’m told has been reproduced quite faithfully–I suspect I would have skipped the movie altogether. This isn’t the kind of material one needs or wants to experience twice.
Harrison Ford stars as Rusty Sabich, a public prosecutor in an unnamed American metropolis. When one of Rusty’s colleagues, Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), is brutally murdered, his boss, Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy), delegates him to investigate the case, an assignment complicated by the fact that Rusty is still obsessed by a brief, intense extramarital fling he had with Carolyn. Ultimately, he is charged with the crime and forced to prove his innocence in court.
The Frank Pierson-Alan J. Pakula screenplay juggles a number of other topics–political back stabbing, child abuse, police corruption, purloined evidence, shattered idealism. The film’s tone is somber and angst-ridden, with characters muttering or whispering most of the dialogue.
This sotto voce thriller is being promoted as a bracing antidote to this summer’s clamorous, mindless Hollywood output–a cavalcade of gunplay, explosions, car crashes, and similar carnage. But thematically as well as formally, Presumed Innocent is simply inert. Just as the invention of photography liberated painters from the stifling constraints of realism, one might suppose that television would have put an end to this kind of filmmaking–interminable chatter and purely functional imagery (static camera work, alternating close-ups and establishing shots). Apart from some rather clinical discussion of the contents of the dead woman’s vagina and an extended, low- voltage lovemaking flashback featuring the partially unclad Ford and Scacchi, Presumed Innocent is as unadventurously bland as any Ted Turner cut-and-paste made-for-television feature.
Clearly, director Pakula is playing it safe with this doggedly literal print-to- film translation. Some memorable pictures from early on in his career–The Sterile Cuckoo, Klute, and The Parallax View, movies filled with gripping performances and hard-to-shake emotions–are, if anything, more arresting today than when they first appeared. But Pakula’s recent work has been disappointing. The overpraised Sophie’s Choice was his only successful picture of the past decade; the rest, including Rollover, Dream Lover, and See You in the Morning, passed unnoticed from theaters to video. Aware of his sagging reputation, Pakula isn’t taking any chances with Presumed Innocent. He’s content to adapt Turow’s widely read novel without attempting to personalize or stylize it in any way. Master cinematographer Gordon Willis is squelched by Pakula’s pedestrian approach. His drab, shadowy images are competently executed, but the creator of the stunning visuals of The Godfather, Bad Company, and Manhattan could have cranked this one out in his sleep. John Williams’s music is surprisingly unobtrusive, though the synthesizer arpeggios he’s chosen to underscore the sex scene are awfully hackneyed.
What little suspense Presumed Innocent manages to generate is due to the efforts of its players. Like Rock Hudson, Ford is not an innately interesting or dynamic performer, but he’s a diligent actor whose skill and self-assurance increase from film to film. His laconic but detailed and intense work as Rusty, a frustrated, anguished man, contains more than enough feeling and nuance to keep us wondering whether or not he’s the killer. Bonnie Bedelia, a lamentably underestimated actress, adds substance to the largely thankless role of Rusty’s neglected wife, Barbara.
Dennehy brings his familiar, blustery presence to Rusty’s perfidious superior; Raul Julia has some canny moments as a shrewd defense attorney; Paul Winfield endows the judge in Rusty’s trial with some much-needed earthy humor. Scacchi, whose character is dead when the film opens, is restricted to a few flashbacks. White Mischief, A Man in Love, and other recent ho-hum imports have shown her to be one of the contemporary screen’s great beauties as well as a more-than-competent actress. Here, unflatteringly photographed and saddled with a brief, emotionally confining role, Scacchi is only able to demonstrate her mastery of an American accent and once again prove how fetching she looks without her clothes.
For the first two hours, the screenplay plods along in professional but unremarkable fashion. (I suppose one might consider this some sort of triumph for Pierson, who wrote and directed two notorious stinkers, King of the Gypsies and the unspeakable Streisand vanity remake of A Star Is Born.) But even this display of uninspired craftsmanship is spoiled by the preposterous “surprise” ending, a revelation so patently implausible that even moviegoers who were able to tolerate the absurdly contrived ending of No Way Out will feel bamboozled.
Implausibility is not necessarily a cardinal sin in a suspense picture. Hitchcock’s sublime Vertigo, for example, shamelessly strains credibility. But Hitchcock uses the genre as a vehicle for exploring personal, poetic themes–romantic intoxication, fetishism, and necrophilia, to name only a few. Pierson and Pakula are only concerned about who killed Carolyn Polhemus and why, and therefore are under stricter obligation to make their plot believable. Throughout, the question of Rusty’s guilt is irritatingly fudged. Because he appears in virtually every scene, crucial information has to be concealed to keep us guessing. After the murderer’s identity has been exposed, one can’t help feeling like a chump for having been toyed with so dishonestly.
Although I’m sorely tempted to break faith with Warners and reveal the culprit–the movie cheats so badly that one wants to respond in kind–I’m not prepared to suffer the abuse of outraged readers. But allow me to indicate a few of the absurdities we’re asked to swallow in order to accept the film’s resolution. That a man who claims to be unjustly accused of murder would not vehemently assert his innocence. That a killer capable of concocting a fiendishly complex crime would return home with the murder weapon and store it in an easy-to-find place without washing off the victim’s caked blood and hair. That the nonoxynol-9 spermicide found in the vagina of the victim (whose “tubes have been tied”) is unquestioningly assumed to have been placed there by her murderer. (The idea that a sensible, sexually active woman might take pains to use this well-known AIDS virus neutralizer is never considered.) That a woman depicted as being sexually ignored by her philandering mate–and voluble in protesting that neglect–would somehow be able to collect her husband’s semen from her diaphragm.
Presumed Innocent plays the audience for chumps in order to spring its closing-reel Big Whammy. The filmmakers apparently assume that the national epidemic of dumbness we’ve endured for a decade–Reagan, Quayle, Stallone, Milli Vanilli, ad idiotum–has softened our brains to accept just about anything, no matter how ridiculous. I’m happy to report that the audience at the public sneak I attended didn’t seem to be buying any of it. They filed out of the theater in what seemed to be insulted silence.
As usual at the movies these days, women bear the brunt of the film’s fiercest insults. As in Fatal Attraction, its ambitious, successful career woman is depicted as a slut who uses her sexual allure to gain professional and personal advancement. We’re told repeatedly that the deceased Carolyn was “bad news.” In the courtroom sequences, we learn that she had been carnally intimate with two of the trial’s principal players as well as with Rusty. (We are not informed how many jury members she diddled.) Conversely, Rusty’s “good” wife, who has forgone completing a math doctorate to care for her husband and young son, rarely leaves the kitchen and only then to defend her marital turf before returning to her oven. Some of the intriguing tension in Bedelia’s performance no doubt stems from this sensible actress’s instinctive resistance to such a role.
An insipid chowder of red herrings and insidious sexual stereotypes, Presumed Innocent is scarcely my idea of an adult summer (or winter) movie. If this contrived, ludicrously improbable thriller is what Hollywood now considers grown-up fodder, I’ll settle for rampaging gremlins and malicious spiders.