Murder. Corruption. Adultery. Bribery. This movie is pretty much about how I spend my Thursdays.
Harrison Ford plays Rusty Sabich, a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office of an unnamed American city in Kindle County. Rusty’s a tough prosecutor but also an idealist who remains loyal to his boss despite losing ground in the ongoing election. Unfortunately, Rusty has one problem: he had an affair with Carolyn Polhemus, and she’s now been murdered. While this isn’t Rusty’s area of expertise, the usual prosecutor who handles homicides has jumped ship for the opposition campaign, so he’s stuck with the investigation. Things go down the tubes as the investigation slowly begins pointing at Rusty, ultimately ending with him facing trial. But did Rusty actually commit the crime?
Not with hair like that, he didn’t.
Presumed Innocent is a legal thriller with erotic elements based on the 1987 novel of the same name by Scott Turow that tries to play with the audience’s expectations before going for the shock ending…if you didn’t already know the ending from the book, which maybe you haven’t read. Warner Bros. attempted a silence campaign similar to something like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, where reviewers were told not to give away critical plot details, but it was at least partly ignored. Despite this, most of them seemed to at least enjoy the film, and it went on to become a box office success.
It’s also not hard to see why people would be attracted to the film. Alan J. Pakula adapted the screenplay along with award winning screenwriter Frank Pierson and then directed it with Sydney Pollack as producer. Cinematography was handled by Gordon Willis, considered to be one of the most important and influential cinematographers of all time. The soundtrack was composed by John Williams. And that’s just the crew. The cast includes the likes of Harrison Ford as the lead, Bonnie Bedelia as his wife, Greta Scacchi as the victim, Raul Julia, Brian Dennehy, Paul Winfield in a fantastic turn as the judge, Sab Shimono, and three future West Wing cast members: John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, and Jesse Bradford. That’s enough talent on both sides of the camera to knock your teeth out.
The film was received well, it turned out to be highly successful, it helped spawn both a television miniseries and made-for-TV movie, and it was nominated for an Edgar Allen Poe Award, the premiere award offered by the Mystery Writers of America. And yet, we can only get it on Blu Ray in a two-pack with the Roman Polanski film Frantic or in Harrison Ford collections. That’s why I wanted to highlight this, because even despite the incredible talent poured into it and the quality of the end product, Presumed Innocent seems largely forgotten nowadays. And this makes for an interesting look at Harrison Ford’s overall movie career, because while we focus on his more action and fantastical offerings, he has a versatility that gets glossed over.
In the 1980s, Ford’s work is primarily focused around the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, though Blade Runner also stands outs in discussion. His more dramatic turns in Witness, Frantic, Working Girl, and The Mosquito Coast are forgotten. The 1990s brought a turn towards more thrillers, including a couple of Jack Ryan films, The Fugitive, Air Force One, and The Devil’s Own. Maybe his starring role in the remake of Sabrina gets mentioned. What we don’t talk about? Presumed Innocent and Regarding Henry. Sure, Ford opted for a bad buzz cut to try and make himself wimpier in Presumed Innocent, but is the haircut really so bad we have to forget about yet another quality picture in a stellar career?
Presumed Innocent also fits in a niche of early ’90s cinema, thrillers centered around a husband and wife. Only a few years after Fatal Attraction, the theater was being inundated with the likes of Sleeping with the Enemy, A Kiss Before Dying, and Malice, alongside other related thriller subgenres such as crime thrillers like White Sands and the new erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct. Perhaps the issue is that there was an overload, and this one just got lost in the shuffle. Legal thrillers in cinema also had a boom in the ’90s bolstered by adaptations of John Grisham’s novels, though Presumed Innocent successfully managed to predate them. Scott Turow unfortunately never managed to capture the kind of success that Grisham did with adaptations, which may be yet another reason why the film seems forgotten despite its release at a key time in the thriller field.
There are some missteps in the film, of course, not least of which is Ford’s hair (I’m gonna keep going back to it, because it really is that bad). There is a particular scene involving a pre-trial interview between the defense and a witness that would be considered witness tampering in any legitimate court…though with the number of shenanigans going on in the trial at hand, one count of witness tampering seems of little consequence considering the dude basically commits perjury for reasons I never felt were reasonably explained. There is also evidence tampering, possible extortion, ethical quandaries from the prosecutor’s office, and a whole mess of other problems which keep the film moving but also lead to some of Paul Winfield’s best lines as Judge Larren Lyttle. And Winfield is so good, I forgive the movie of pretty much all of this just to give him the chance to monologue.
We also have a weird moment at the end where there are two places to end it: one with a few minutes left to go, and the actual ending. This is not what I mean with the multiple “Ok please stop” points of a film like A.I., but instead two places where the film could have ended yet lead to very different conclusions about the main character and his complicity in the corruption surrounding him as well as his idealism and need to uphold his concept of justice. Presumed Innocent ends with an exposition dump explaining what actually happened, but there is a great place to stop the film right before this explanation that would also have formed a perfect final image, though it would also have dramatically changed the impact the murder and trial would have had on Rusty. While the ending is much more in line with the book, albeit with some material omitted for the sake of brevity, part of me wants to see what would have happened if the film cut a few minutes and ended with Rusty washing his tools, now just as corrupted by his experience on the other side of the justice system as literally everyone he works with.