Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Presumed Innocent (1990)

Director: Alan J. Pakula                                 Writers: Frank Pierson and Alan J. Pakula
Film Score: John Williams                             Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Starring: Harrison Ford, Greta Scacchi, Raul Julia and Brian Dennehy

I hate Scott Turrow’s writing—present tense is always pretentious, period, and I can’t stand reading it—but he does come up with some great stories, and this is one of them. Based on the author’s first novel, Presumed Innocent is a fascinating courtroom drama, intricately plotted and perfectly executed by director Alan J. Pakula. It’s no surprise that the film is as good as it is when the producing credits come up and Sydney Pollack’s name appears. The actor-director-producer had the golden touch right up until his death in 2008, and this film is a case in point. Not only did he assemble an all-star cast that included Harrison Ford, Bonnie Bedelia, Greta Scacchi, Raul Julia, Brian Dennehy, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford and Paul Winfield, but a superior behind-the-camera crew as well. Alan J. Pakula had directed some powerful political films in the seventies, The Parallax View and All the President's Men, and worked with writer Frank Pierson on the adaptation of Turrow’s novel. Cinematographer Gordon Willis had worked with Woody Allen and Pakula, as well as Francis Ford Coppola on the Godfather films. Finally, the incomparable John Williams was brought in to score the picture. What’s so great about the film is that while the court case is a complex one, the exposition very easily allows the viewer to understand everything that’s going on and the implications, and yet still has plenty of surprises along the way.

The film opens with a brilliant voice over by Harrison Ford that is only really brilliant in retrospect--the first of many reasons this film demands repeat viewings. This cuts to a heartwarming family scene in the kitchen as Ford, along with wife Bonnie Bedelia and son Jesse Bradford have breakfast together before work and school. They seem like a happy family. Once at the office, assistant district attorney Ford interacts with a few of his lawyers before meeting with D.A. Brian Dennehy and learning that one of their attorneys, Greta Scacchi, has been brutally murdered. Dennehy gives Ford the case, as he’s running for reelection against Tom Mardirosian and needs to find Scacchi’s killer or he will lose the election. Ford brings in his favorite homicide detective, John Spencer to help, goes through Scacchi’s office and discovers a missing file, then goes home late, where the viewer learns from a devastated Bedelia--who’s trying to keep it together--that Ford had an affair with Scacchi. Understandably, Bedelia finds it difficult to hide the fact that she’s delighted by Scacchi’s death. The murder, however, is a real puzzler because there are absolutely no clues as to who the murderer is, despite fingerprints and DNA. At the same time Ford is trying to keep the office going while Dennehy is pressuring him to forget everything else and find the killer. It’s not until after Dennehy loses the election that Mardirosian discovers Ford’s fingerprints at the murder scene and has him arrested as the killer.

Ford hires Raul Julia to defend him, and the court case occupies the second half of the film, with Joe Grifasi assisting Mardirosian with the prosecution, Bradley Whitford assisting Julia with the defense, and Paul Winfield on the bench adjudicating. The final great supporting role is Sab Shimono as the medical examiner. The cast is simply superb. Harrison Ford gives one of his best performances on film, right up there with Regarding Henry and The Mosquito Coast. Gretta Scacchi is perfect as the femme fatale, and Turrow gives a nice twist to the trope when she’s the one who winds up dead. Brian Dennehy and John Spencer are two of my favorite character actors of all time, and I absolutely love Bonnie Bedelia in everything she’s done--her work in this film is far better than that in Die Hard. But the performance that absolutely leaps off the screen is that of Raul Julia, the high-priced defense lawyer who is so cool and collected and exudes so much confidence that it almost dampens some of the suspense about how the trial will conclude. It makes it that much more cruel that he died so young. Another actor giving one of his best performances is Paul Winfield, whose character craftily allows his disadvantaged upbringing to disguise a razor-sharp intellect, and he winds up being the key element in the entire film. When it comes to the acting--and everything else for that matter--the film doesn’t make a wrong move.

One of the interesting aspects of Greta Scacchi’s role is that it’s easy to forget that she’s actually dead throughout the entire story, much like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard but without the first-person narration. It’s only through Ford’s memories shown in flashback that she is seen, which is a nice cinematic conceit, because it’s Ford’s continuing obsession with her even after her death that keeps her alive for the viewer, replicating his character’s behavior in the film. Another remarkable thing is that even though it was released in 1990, the film has a genuine timeless quality to it, with no pop culture references, and very little in the way of exteriors or costumes that date the visuals. I absolutely love this kind of story as well, where everything doesn’t fall into place until the very end. All of the confusion, and the way certain scenes play out are designed to get the audience thinking one way, before the conclusion turns it all around to reveal the hidden truth. What this means is that the film rewards repeat viewings because the second and third time around--I think I’m easily in the twenties range--allow the viewer to see the true motivations of the characters and thus makes it just as entertaining but in a completely different way. I can’t say enough good things about Presumed Innocent. It’s not only one of my favorite courtroom dramas, but one of my favorite films of all time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

D-Day the Sixth of June (1956)

Director: Henry Koster                                      Writers: Ivan Moffat and Harry Brown
Film Score: Lyn Murray                                     Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Starring: Robert Taylor, Dana Wynter, Richard Todd and John Williams

Though Robert Taylor was a big Hollywood star, I’ve never seen many of his films, and so he tends to be a fairly generic presence for me onscreen. As a result, when I first watched D-Day the Sixth of June, other than Edmond O’Brien and the great John Williams, Jerry Paris was the only actor I really recognized, and that was from another World War Two film from two years earlier, The Caine Mutiny. In some respects, however, the two films have a lot in common. Much of the first half of the films focus on a romance as much as on the war, and it’s not until the second half of the film that the real drama begins. Where Stanley Kramer’s film was a big-budget feature, however, that was done with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, this film feels like a B-picture that couldn’t really afford to recreate the war . . . so it didn’t try. The cast, on the other hand, is pretty solid. The Brits and Taylor acquit themselves well, but Edmond O’Brien is a little over the top and unbelievable at times. Dana Wynter is radiant onscreen and instantly recognizable from Invasion of the Body Snatchers from the year before. The only other familiar face for me is Dabbs Greer, who had a long career in Hollywood, primarily on television, but is probably best remembered by modern audiences as the old Tom Hanks in The Green Mile. He does a nice job as O’Brien’s driver.

The film begins onboard a ship taking an elite unit across the English Channel on D-Day. But before long two of the men have flashbacks about the previous two years. First is a short one, British soldier Richard Todd visiting his girlfriend, Dana Wynter, and her father John Williams, to say goodbye before he joins a special squad to help reinforce Tobruk in 1942. Then it’s the turn of American Robert Taylor as he meets Wynter shortly after and falls in love with her--despite the fact that he’s married. At first Wynter thinks she’s safe with a married man, but then she falls for him too and so has to ask him to stop seeing her. At the same time Taylor is working for a hardboiled colonel, Edmond O’Brien, and living with fellow officer Jerry Paris. It’s a long winded flashback that takes up the majority of the film and, while nominally interesting, it doesn’t really fulfill the expectations of the title in the same way as something like The Longest Day, which was made early in the next decade. It’s essentially a wartime soap opera, with Taylor cheating on his wife with Wynter, and Wynter cheating on Todd, and Taylor jealous of Todd because he’s out fighting the war while Taylor is stuck commanding a desk. Eventually Taylor’s office is disbanded and he’s sent to Algiers for a year. But the stars align when O’Brien is put in charge of a special force--one that Todd eventually commands--and not only does it get Taylor back to England and Wynter, it puts him in the fight as well, as the members of the squad are going to be the first ground troops in Normandy on D-Day.

It’s a fairly low-budget film, as it contains just the one battle scene, and lots of rear projection in the exterior shots. It was also filmed on the Fox back lot instead of England. Finally, with the romance taking up more than half of the film it’s only nominally a war picture, and those coming to the film with expectations of watching a fictionalized unfolding of Operation Overlord on June 6th 1944 are going to be severely disappointed, as D-Day itself seems almost beside the point. While the single battle scene is well done, the aftermath strains credulity. The assault was modeled on an actual American mission against Pointe du Hoc prior to the invasion landing. After the raid on one of the big German guns, the soldiers casually wait on the beach for the main invasion to arrive and yet no other Germans show up to wipe them out. It’s actually incredibly strange to watch. The screenplay was based on a novel by Canadian author Lionel Shapiro, a reporter for the Montreal Gazette who was attached to the Canadian troops for nearly the whole of their participation in the war. And while the novel was awarded the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction, it’s not really a war novel. Other than the single battle scene at the end, little else stands out as exceptional. D-Day the Sixth of June, while certainly nowhere near qualifying as a bad movie, is merely adequate throughout and on the whole can’t help being a little disappointing because of it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Director: Scott Derrickson                                    Writers: Scott Derrickson & Paul Boardman
Film Score: Christopher Young                             Cinematography: Tom Stern
Starring: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter and Mary Beth Hurt

I remember this film receiving a lot of publicity when it was first released, enough so that I purchased the DVD shortly after it came out. Watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose alone, on a winter’s night, in the dark, was a fairly creepy experience. But watching it now, a decade and a half later, in the daytime during the summer, it wasn’t really frightening at all . . . or even very interesting for that matter. Director Scott Derrickson called the film a cross between a courtroom drama and a horror film and he’s exactly right, but in the process it embraces neither genre fully and because of that it lacks the major impact of films like The Exorcist or A Few Good Men. The screenplay is based on the true story of a young German woman named Anneliese Michel who died in the same way in the mid nineteen seventies. But this is just another aspect of the film that undermines it’s potential. True stories in Hollywood have the tendency to short circuit the creative process and enslave the story to the “facts.” Derrickson and co-writer Paul Boardman seemed to have avoided the worst of these pitfalls--Anneliese Michel underwent sixty-seven exorcisms, while Emily Rose endures only one--but there’s still a strong sense that their creativity was inhibited to a great degree by a desire to conform to other aspects of the true story.

The film opens on a desolate patch of farmland, dead corn stalks, pumpkins in the garden, and a timid Terence Kelly knocking on the front door of a house that would give Norman Bates the creeps. Turns out Kelly is the medical examiner called by the police, and after his examination he declares that the dead girl upstairs did not die of natural causes. Then the police arrest priest Tom Wilkinson. The case is a tough one for D.A. Julian Christopher because they’re trying to convict a holy man of murder, and he finally selects the super religious super lawyer Campbell Scott to prosecute. Meanwhile the law firm representing the church opts for Laura Linney, who demands a partnership for taking on the case. Wilkinson, as expected, refuses to plead guilty, claiming his only desire is to tell Emily’s story. At the same time, Linney wants a free hand to use whatever tactics it takes to get him an acquittal--and her partnership. As a result, the story of Emily, played by Jennifer Carpenter, is told in flashback throughout the film, beginning with the mother, Marilyn Norry, telling about Carpenter going away to college. The story emerges of a young girl who had grown up in an ultra conservative Catholic home and, once on her own at college, begins to experience the type of supernatural horrors described by her religion. The prosecution’s case is a simple one: the doctor at the university, Kenneth Welsh, tested Carpenter for epilepsy and found positive results, but Carpenter refused the treatment on the advice of Wilkinson. Then his exorcism went wrong and killed her.

The case for Linney is a lot more complicated because of who her client is. One of the interesting dichotomies the film sets up is that the man prosecuting Wilkinson is a devout Christian, and yet Campbell Scott wants to see the priest behind bars for what he sees as an abuse of power and a disregard for human life. Laura Linney, on the other hand, is an admitted agnostic who is tasked with defending a man of the cloth. She has real trouble when he begins warning her that evil forces are at work in the trial and she fears her client might be mentally unbalanced, but couched in religious terms his delusions have essentially been condoned by society. Nevertheless, because the medical evidence is so strong, Linney ultimately decides that the only way to win the case is to double down on possession as a legitimate cause for Carpenter’s condition, therefore absolving Wilkinson of any negligence or responsibility for her death. Linney and Wilkinson are film veterans and acquit themselves as one would expect. Campbell Scott is probably best known for his appearance two years later as the pretentious professor in Music and Lyrics and doesn’t bring a lot to the proceedings, but he’s not bad either. Jennifer Carpenter had only made a few films before being cast in this one, and was a solid if unexceptional choice. Finally, the great Mary Beth Hurt as the presiding judge at the trial rounds out the main cast.

If there’s one place where the film excels it is in the direction of the actors by Scott Derrickson. Both Linney and Wilkinson have a tendency to overact in their films, but since they’re so good it sort of works. But here, Derrickson has them both on a very short leash, limiting their range in the service of the film as a whole. There are no big emotional scenes and no histrionics--even the scenes where the two are visited by evil spirits are underplayed to an impressive degree. The rationale seems to be to provide a distinct contrast between the horrors that Carpenter undergoes and the rest of the film. And it’s a great strategy, as Linney delivers arguably her best performance on film. The tinting of the visuals washed out any vibrant colors and gives the film a terrific wintertime feel. And the special effects are quite good, seamlessly transforming normal faces into horrifying apparitions with black, bleeding eyes and hissing, gaping mouths. But the most impressive aspect of the film is that it doesn’t take sides. The argument made in the courtroom is left for the viewer to decide, and the validity of neither view is pushed to the fore as the “right” one. Ironically, it’s probably one of the things that audiences found lacking in the film, but for me it was a perfect way to go. The Hollywood expectation is that either Linney will find religion or Wilkinson will lose his faith. But neither happens, and it’s quite a pleasant surprise and ultimately what makes The Exorcism of Emily Rose worth watching.