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

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds . Juno and the Paycock , set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt 's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.