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.