Presumed Innocent (1990) ☆☆☆ (3/4) : A Prosecuted Prosecutor

   “An innocent man has nothing to fear, remember that.”, said the cop in Hitchcock’s” The Wrong Man” to Henry Fonda’s arrested character, but we all know his saying is not true at all. Guilty or not, our fate will eventually be decided at the courtroom where the lawyers make arguments on your culpability in front of the judges and the jury. And in that inexorable system pursuing the justice, we tremble in fear for the sheer possibility of punishment sentenced upon us.

 In Alan J. Pakula’s 1990 movie “Presumed Innocent”, our hero Rusty Savich(Harrison Ford) is the part of that system. In opening sequence where the empty courtroom is shown with the glum solemnity, he explains us what he does in this place that is devoid of hope and optimism. As a prosecutor, he determines who is to be charged, and presents the evidences for his argument for the defendant’s culpability, and waits for the verdict and the following sentence. He is the deputy chief of the district attorney; he knows well about how it works. Now, he finds himself trapped in a deep trouble while being on the other side.

 His plight begins with the shocking incident in which one of his attorneys is found murdered in a very brutal way at her home. Because there are less than two weeks left for the election, Rusty’s boss Raymond(Brain Dennehy) wants the case to be solved as soon as possible. He personally demands Rusty to take the case, and Rusty reluctantly follows his instruction due to his past relationship with a murdered attorney, Carolyn Polhemus(Greta Scacchi).


 Carolyn is the woman who is very good at playing what roles her men want, and she approached to Rusty as a confident, idealist attorney. She brought him a tough but interesting case, and, after their successful result, they began a secret affair. However, several months ago, their relationship is ended when it was clear that she regarded him as one of stepping stones in her career. He rejected her favor and she dumped him for the other man without any ounce of regret. Rusty still does not get over his romantic obsession toward her, and Rusty’s wife Barbara(Bonnie Bedelia) is very bitter about the fact that her husband remains infatuated with Carolyn even after her death.

 Suddenly, the evidences against Rusty start to appear during the investigation and the Hitchockian nightmare begins. He is accused of the crime by his peers. His house is searched for any other crucial evidences. He is even arrested by the police officers at his house. He hires a good lawyer, but the chance of the acquittal is pretty low for him. And several small but strange things perplex almost everyone in the courtroom and lead the trial to unexpected turns.

 Amidst of all these happenings, Harrison Ford does as little as possible on the screen while revealing few things about his character’s inner feelings. That is the right choice; we’re never quite sure about his innocence while having some trust in his character. We know Sabich is in deep fear for the outcome of this trial. We know he is a man of the decency and the righteousness thanks to Ford’s taciturn presence. He’s willing to testify honestly about his flaws to the jury although his lawyer strongly advises him not to do it.


 Nevertheless, that does not mean that he’s innocent; we also know he’s still deeply haunted by the memories of Carolyn. As one of his peers points out(“you always had the cork too tight”), he represses lots of his emotions behind his stoic face and some possibility cannot be easily discarded. After the big success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Ford had tried to do something different in several movies, and the movie was one of his successful turns. He provides a fine balance between the trust and the doubt as the center of the story.

 Pakula built his director career with several quiet but impressive thrillers with the hidden dark force such as “Klute” and “All the President’s Men” in the 1970s, and “Presumed Innocent” grips us with the screen filled with that same still uneasiness. Its dextrous storytelling leads us to the finale in a complicated but lucid way without giving too much hints.

 He and Frank Pierson(“Cool Hand Luke” and “Dog Day Afternoon”) give a good adaptation of Scott Turow’ mystery novel. Before starting the writer career, Turow(he has recently published the sequel to his book, by the way) had been a lawyer like John Grisham and he provided realistic materials for the movie. Pakula and Pierson focus on making the drama credible as well as authentic. The main details of the murder case are succinctly delivered to us in the tight courtroom drama without losing any suspense. Cinematographer Gordon Willis, “The Prince of Darkness”, provides the daily atmosphere with the dark undercurrents, and John Williams gives exceptionally subtle moments of unstableness and desperation with probably the most brooding score in his career.


  The supporting actors surrounding Ford are talented enough to play human beings who are holding their cards behind the back. You will discover their subtleties on the second viewing. I will not reveal much about them, but I just want to say we have these wonderful and recognizable actors like Dennehy, Bedelia, Scacchi, and other three who are sadly no longer with us now. Raul Julia is unflappable as a smooth, wise lawyer who clearly perceives the situation and what’s the best for his client. John Spencer plays a loyal cop friend of Rusty who prefers the poetic justice to the juristic one, and Paul Winfield is amusing as the judge presiding over the case.

 While revisiting the movie in HD, I realized again how some aspects of the movie felt a bit dated(look at these computers!). The forensic techniques are more advanced years after the movie came out, and Rusty will probably face the truth far earlier in our time. Nevertheless, the story itself is compelling enough with our universal fear of being accused and prosecuted. Unlike flashy, quick-cutting styles rampant on TV(CSI, anyone?) and in the movies nowadays, the movie takes considerable time to build the characters and their situations. The tension is mounted step by step in the stillness filled with ambiguity. And we’re agitated because we become to care about what will happen to them. In the end, we don’t see the obligatory sequence where everything is explained; we see how a devastating blow it is to real people.



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5 Responses to Presumed Innocent (1990) ☆☆☆ (3/4) : A Prosecuted Prosecutor

  1. S M Rana says:

    As a courtroom addict, you have made a strong case in favour of the film. Have you seen Anatomy of a murder? Would you believe I gained a then much needed understanding of legal process from a series of films, so film can serve a variety of functions.

    • kaist455 says:

      I have DVD. I watched it twice and it’s still entertaining thanks to deft direction and very good performances.

      • S M Rana says:

        It is also used as a text in law schools because of it’s authentic legal precision. You seem to have viewed a formidable mountain of cinema, and that too at a yong age.

  2. Grace says:

    I have been meaning to see this for ages. Looks fantastic. Too many films, too little time…

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