Skip to main content

I'm going to need a lawyer. A very, very good lawyer. An expensive lawyer.


Presumed Innocent
(1990)

Harrison Ford’s star power was at a peak when he appeared in this adaptation of Scott Turow’s novel. The 1980s had seen Ford’s defining presence in two franchises (from Lucas and Spielberg) solidified by a shrewd balancing act with material aiming to be both artistically and commercially compelling. As such, he aligned himself with interesting directors (Peter Weir, Roman Polanski) and material (literary adaptations in the form of Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast and Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) He didn’t over-commit (averaging a film a year, this approach would only see him come unstuck when his choices went awry several times in a row) and had the luxury of tentpoles to return to should a less certain endeavor not bear fruit. He even essayed to a supporting turn in a romantic comedy (Working Girl), which went further to emphasise that he could hardly put a foot wrong.

True, Blade Runner was both a commercial disappointment and an unhappy experience; the science fiction genre had reaped dividends for him in one particular series but it seemed that lightning would not strike twice. Witness probably amounted to the most interesting choice Ford made during the ‘80s, in that it could have been a sign of the Ford of the ‘90s if he had not hedged his bets. A nascent Clooney-type who would use his clout to pick interesting subject matter with thematic depth (unlike Clooney, Ford would not wear his politics on his sleeve, however).

However, following the success of Witness (which, despite its cop central character and rousing climax was no sure thing) Ford made two choices that could arguably be viewed as causing him to retrench when they failed. The Mosquito Coast saw him reteam with Weir for what may be the most interesting character he has played. It was a project brought to him by Weir, but which he cared about (and which his agent most certainly did not). That it met with such public apathy may have stung him, the kind of sting that leads one to the safe territory of playing Jack Ryan. Frantic feels less significant in that it rested more on its director’s shoulders and there wasn’t a huge amount riding on it. It’s a likable little film, but seemed to suggest that viewers did not want to see Ford as the everyman (the attraction may have been that his character is definably non-heroic), yet in some respects it could be seen as a dry run for the huge success of The Fugitive.

Bookending the 1980s was Indiana Jones, and the third in the series appeared to conclude his adventures (on the big screen at least). It also gave Ford the cushion to stretch himself a bit, and he settled on a property that was smart, commercial and gave him a role he could get his teeth into. Predictably, most of the column inches analysed the severe haircut he chose for Rusty Sabich.

Approached with skill, the courtroom thriller can be one of the most appealing cinematic genres. The chance to tease the audience, to show or withhold, and to indulge in dramatic grandstanding, is irresistible. In the previous decade, Jagged Edge became a monster hit. The 1990s would be defined by a legion of John Grisham translations (starting with The Firm in 1993). Presumed Innocent was a reasonably big hit (one of the Top 10 films of its year or release in the US), but it did not catch fire in the way that the most glossy and manipulative entries in the genre have done. Part of that is probably down to Turrow’s source material, which is more morally complex and measured than your average Grisham. Part of it too, is surely the sensibility that director Alan J Pakula brought with him. Pakula made a strong impression with a trilogy of claustrophobic ‘70s thrillers (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men), after which his choices seemed less assured (Sophie’s Choice attracted the most attention due to Meryl) He would go on to direct the undemanding Grisham flick The Pelican Brief before reteaming with Ford for the problematic but not without merit The Devil’s Own.

It’s not just the tone that may have prevented the film becoming something bigger, it’s that Ford’s character is relatively unsympathetic. Innocent is a more difficult property than Jagged Edge, where the ambiguity does not relate to the central protagonist. Here, we are uncertain whether Sabich committed the crime he is accused of (and, indeed, we are a third of the way through the film before any charges are levelled at him). What is made abundantly clear is his infidelity, the fall-out it has inflicted upon his marriage and the less-than-tempered attitude he takes after Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi) has broken off the affair. Also something of a leap was what we see of Ford; the leading man with his trousers round his ankles, groping his co-star’s breasts? Have we walked into a Michael Douglas picture by mistake?

It’s an interesting role for Ford for additional reason; although he is the lead, he is required to be mostly a passive figure. Others take his case and have the juicy dialogue while he is called upon to simmer pensively, with just the occasional venting. If, on balance, this were a success, the actor would take it too far the following year. On paper Regarding Henry probably looked like Rain Man-esque Oscar bait; leading character reduced to a childlike state within the confines of an overt morality tale. And a reteaming with Mike Nichols. It probably further confirmed to Ford that audiences want him in one sort of role, rather than looking to the script as the culprit (J’accuse, J J Abrams). The retreat to the anodyne safety of Jack Ryan is symbolic of where Ford’s career started to go very wrong, full of second-guessing and lack of inspiration (culminating in a 10 years too late return as Indian Jones). He appears to have chosen a trio of supporting roles with potential in 2013, though, so maybe we’ll yet see another blast of what made Ford such a star.

Good as Ford is in Innocent, it’s the supporting cast that steals all the thunder. Every role is a recognisable “type” (grizzled detective, insufferable prosecuting attorney, idiosyncratic judge, etc) but there is no sense of the filmmakers taking an easy, broad strokes line. The dialogue never talks down to the audience, so one has to pay attention to be clear on the various tangents and lines of investigation that are introduced.

Bonnie Bedelia probably deserves the most credit, investing Sabich’s wife with barely concealed pain and distress at what her husband has done. That, and a flippant, mordant streak of humour. She’s over-qualified but under-fulfilled, both in terms of career and domesticity (her husband, arriving home, mistakes her post-masturbatory glow for exercise). Arriving in quick succession to Holly McClane in Die Hard, it looked briefly as if Bedelia would carve herself a niche in well-written wife roles (the two not usually being synonymous, just ask Anne Archer). Like Ford’s, this is not a scene-stealing turn, but it’s certainly the most resonant performance in the film.

Raul Julia’s collected, calculating defence attorney is the usual lead in a film like this, but he’s only a highly accomplished part of an ensemble of supporting players. Paul Winfield steals every scene he has as the quick-witted, feisty presiding judge while Joe Grifasi’s prosecutor is wonderfully weasely. Future West Wing co-stars John Spencer and Bradley Whitford enjoyably round-out the defence team. Brian Dennehy gets the Brian Dennehy part. As for Greta Scacchi, hers is probably the most thankless role. Her character appears only in flashback, and is your classic cliché of a career girl willing to screw her way to the top (she abruptly ends her relationship with Sabich when he shows disinterest in aiding her trajectory). Yes, she is given a social conscience but it isn’t her most memorable trait. Scacchi was probably at her most visible career-wise at the time (The Player was just round the corner) but she never really escaped type-casting as the elegant girl who was contractually obliged to take her clothes off.  

The other big stars of the film are Gordon Willis’s rich, autumnal photography and John Williams’ strikingly simple but highly memorable theme. It’s difficult to say whether Williams’ “but for Spielberg” retirement is a good thing, as he tends to deliver over-strained syrup for his director’s prestige projects, but his work on Presumed Innocent is a reminder of what an inspirational composer he could be.

Ironically, for a courtroom thriller, the trial itself is quite truncated. Really it would have to be so, as there is still more story to tell. Pakula’s distanced approach to the characters ensures that there is continued uncertainty right up until the moment that the murder’s identity is revealed. And yet it is portrayed as a character moment, not a cheap twist.

Ultimately Presumed Innocent stands as a high-class potboiler, by nature of its structure. There is no opportunity to provide a profound character journey (as in, say, The Verdict) but it manages to be more provocative than the many of its peer group. It leaves the viewer without the certainty of justice served or truth willing out, and is the more interesting film for that.

**** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Hey, my friend smells amazing!

Luca (2021) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s first gay movie ? Not according to director Enrico Cassarosa (“ This was really never in our plans. This was really about their friendship in that kind of pre-puberty world ”). Perhaps it should have been, as that might have been an excuse – any excuse is worth a shot at this point – for Luca being so insipid and bereft of spark. You know, the way Soul could at least claim it was about something deep and meaningful as a defence for being entirely lacking as a distinctive and creatively engaging story in its own right.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli