I’m about five films backed up, including Murmur of the Heart, Restrepo and The Things of Life, but I want to continue my ‘late 80s-early 90s thrillers with Raul Julia in a supporting role’ posts.
I usually hate legal thrillers. There are exceptions of course. Anatomy of Murder, Witness for the Prosecution, and The Verdict come to mind. But most of them feel really dry. Most of them also feel repetitive. Presumed Innocent, for example, feels like a loose replay of 1985’s Jagged Edge. Neither film is particularly groundbreaking, but both are serviceable in their sub-genres.
Presumed Innocent features Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich and in yet another role where he can show off his perpetually middle-aged handsomeness. Was or has Harrison Ford ever not been between the ages of 35 and 50? I think he was born 35 and has aged 15 years over the last 30. Ford is again typecast as the professionally competent fall guy, pursued not, in this case, by Tommy Lee Jones, but instead by a team of rather incompetent prosecuting attorneys.
Brief summary, though I bet anyone can guess much of the plot. Rusty is a solid lawyer. Perhaps once a rising star and a hotshot, but now just solid. A partner in his criminal defense firm, the beautiful, flirtatious and promiscuous Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi) is brutally murdered. Rusty takes the fall. Hilarity, I mean drama, ensues when it becomes public that Rusty cheated on his wife Barbara (Bonnie Bedella) with the deceased.
Alan Pakula is a veteran of the political/corporate thriller. All The President’s Men and The Parallax View are both fantastic, but both also have things working for them that Presumed Innocent does not. All The President’s Men has the advantage of historical hindsight and The Parallax View is unabashedly, and proudly, paranoid to an extreme.
Presumed Innocent can’t quite match the energy of his past films and in trying to create a suspenseful form of courtroom conflict falls into the trap of two-dimensional characterizations.
Why are the prosecutors always a) morons, b) unattractive, and c) arrogant in how they play to a jury? Why, also, is the defense always, a) intelligent, b) attractive, and c) able to produce tears in the staunchest of jury members? No exceptions here unless you want to argue that Raul Julia is none of the latter three. Have you ever seen this man soliloquize?
The courtroom bits aside, which actually only make up about 25% of the film, Presumed Innocent falters in its awkward father-son relationship. Rusty’s son seems to be in this film for a reason (sympathy?), but then, about midway through, he’s shuttled off to camp as a convenient way to get him out of there so that adult discussions can ensue at home. The kid feels like such a device, like words on a page rather than a real, relateable character. For good usage of this sort check out Costa Gavras’ underrated 1989 film Music Box.
There are things to like in Presumed Innocent. The dynamic between Rusty and Barbara alternates satisfyingly between desperate love and emotional detachment, and for her part, Bonnie Bedella plays it quite well. There’s a wonderful moment between the two, prior to Rusty’s arrest, where she slowly attempts to make love to him in their bedroom. Her creeping want and his slow reluctance work beautifully off of one-another.
Pakula also uses nice reaction shots of the jury, particularly one female member whom he cuts to often. His positioning of her within a sequence where the jury is shown the murder photographs for the first time is an excellent example of a meaningful look. Her glance upward at Rusty, after seeing the photo, indicates wordlessly that he is already guilty in her mind. It’s also a subtle critique of the inherent bias within the jury system as it exists, which is also present when Raul Julia’s criminal defense attorney Sandy tries to convince Rusty against testifying.
There is subterfuge and subplot that keeps the film afloat and further implicates the corrupt tendencies of a justice system, but none cut deep enough to provide real commentary or, for that matter, to move us beyond the predictable. Even the twist ending is telegraphed.
Imagine this: on the courtroom steps a triumphant Rusty, Sandy and Barbara emerge in a wide-shot. Cut to a medium as reporters crowd in. “How does it feel…” blah blah blah. Smiles. Hugs. Shot of the prosecutors shaking their fists in rage. Probably a kiss. Then…a long slow fade out. Within the thriller setting, the fade implies one of two things: 1) happy ending or 2) upcoming twist. If we fade back in, and not to credits, it’s option 2. And that’s what happens here. It’s interesting how a technique, once reserved for the passage of time and/or a bookend – the dissolve/fade – now has its own meaning within a particular genre. If I have that same fade in a comedy, romance, etc it means something different.