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.

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