Thursday, June 27, 2013

Film Friday: Presumed Innocent (1990)

Presumed Innocent is the best legal thriller ever filmed. It’s gripping, it’s tense. It’s incredibly realistic. It’s populated with real characters with real motivations. It’s unpredictable. It’s thoroughly enjoyable. Needless to say, I recommend it.

** Major Spoiler Alert **
Plot
Presumed Innocent is a legal thriller that revolves around the murder of an assistant district attorney a few weeks before the district attorney must stand for re-election against a challenger who is proving to be more than a match. Desperate to get the murder solved immediately, the district attorney assigns the top prosecutor, Rusty Sabitch, to investigate the murder. Unfortunately, Rusty was having an affair with the victim and soon becomes a suspect. As the story twists and turns, it becomes a courtroom drama that leaves you more and more convinced that Rusty did it.
Why This Film Works
Legal thrillers are one of the more popular genres. Sadly, most legal thrillers are garbage. Whether it’s cardboard characters or plots that are laughably fantastic, few legal thrillers are more than generic action films where the heroes wear suits instead of guns. Some even rely on chase scenes to create drama. . . lookin' at you Grisham. So when you come across a legal thriller with brains and integrity, it’s pretty impressive. Presumed Innocent is such a thriller. And what makes this film work is the complexity of the characters and how their motivations drive their actions which in turn drive the plot, rather than the plot dictating their actions. Indeed, this film is driven by the conflicts that arise when characters with different motives clash and when their own internal motives conflict. This creates uncertainty for the audience as to how events will play out and it gives the film a natural and real feeling as the plot springs from the consequences of the actions of the characters rather than from abstract plot points.
Consider for example, the main character: Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford). On the surface, Rusty is a hard-nosed prosecutor. He’s a bit of an idealist who has lost his idealism and never quite made it to the top because he lacked the ambition to be the top dog. He makes up for that by drowning his time in minutia. He also has a lovely wife and son, who he seems to love. But as we scratch the surface, we learn that there is another side to him as well. This side had an affair with a woman at the office, Carolyn Polhemus, and he became obsessed with her. Even now, long after the affair has ended, he still seems obsessed.

Rusty’s character will be tested when he is asked to investigate Polhemus’ death. Can he overcome his obsession? Will his affair with her come out? Hiding it goes against his duty to his boss and will hinder his investigation. Taking on the assignment also will alienate him from his wife. All of this causes tremendous drama throughout the film. Adding to that drama, by the way, was the brilliant casting of Harrison Ford. Ford brings so much confidence and good will to the role that we find it hard to believe that Rusty can be so weak and obsessed as he seems, and that makes these revelations shocking for us in a way that casting someone more malleable would not. Indeed, it’s jarring to think of Ford as obsessed and that pulls us into the character in a visceral way and unsettles us.
Rusty alone would have been great drama, but he’s just the beginning. Conflicting with Rusty, you have Rusty’s boss Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy). Raymond is a friend of Rusty, but he’s also a politician with questionable integrity, and as Raymond slowly loses his bid for reelection as the District Attorney, he starts to lash out at Rusty. When he loses, he even decides, out of spite, to drag Rusty down as punishment for his own failures. This adds massive amounts of drama to the story, which is then made all the stronger in that the winner of the election, Nico Della Guardia and his underling Tommy Molto, both dislike Rusty. So when the evidence points toward Rusty, they run with it and spin everything against Rusty. Even the characters Rusty encounters while doing his job, like Dr. Kumagai, are in divided camps over the election and may or may not be helping or hindering the investigation. All of this gives the sense of Rusty being under siege both from without and within as he races against the clock on a doomed mission that will blow up on him much more spectacularly than you ever could have guessed.
At the same time, you have Rusty’s wife (Bonnie Bedelia), who is a desperate housewife. She feels like her world has collapsed, as she’s blown her chance at a career because she can’t finish her dissertation and her marriage is a failure as Rusty had the affair. And while Rusty is in the middle of being prosecuted, he needs to work to repair his relationship with his wife, or at least not make it worse.

All of this makes for a deep, deep film because each character feels real, i.e. they don’t just exist to make the plot work, and because most of them are unpredictable because their motives conflict with their obligations to Rusty, so you don’t know which way they will go until they finally act. Further, since these conflicts drive their actions and therefore the plot, the story feels tight. It doesn’t feel like a plot with characters jammed into it. This is excellent writing, and it continues even beyond the main characters. Indeed, you have fantastic characters throughout this film. Think about Polhemus, who uses men to work her way up the ladder and throws them away the moment she spots weakness within them. She plays with fire by building up insecure and weak men and then ripping away the security she has given them the instant she realizes they are weak. In this way, she causes them to feel deeply insecure and brings about their obsessions with her, which will ultimately be her undoing. Alternatively, consider Sandy Stern (Raul Julia) whom Rusty hires to defend him. Stern comes across as part oracle part statesman. He is easily one of the most impressive attorneys ever presented on film and the scenes with him are a joy to watch – made all the better by the truly solid acting of Julia. I know many attorneys who said they went to law school because they wanted to be Sandy Stern. Consider also Judge Larren Lyttle, who is one of the most realistic judges you will find on screen. He’s commanding and professional before the jury, but funny and friendly in his private conferences. He’s thoughtful and tempered and fair, yet no nonsense. He also has a complex past.
And that brings us to the legal aspect. As a lawyer, I pull my hair out when I see films make a mockery of the legal system: impossible computer searches for information that doesn’t exist and wouldn’t be kept on computer if it did. Juror misconduct. The famous “that’s highly unusual, but I’ll allow it” from judges who seem to start and stop their trials randomly to allow the plot to work. Rulings that make no sense. Attorneys who break all the rules of procedure and ethics as their opponents inexplicable sit on their hands. These things are cheating by lazy writers. Yet, Presumed Innocent never falls for that. The reason this film feels so well constructed is because it stays true to the characters and it stays true to the law. Presumed Innocent follows real trial procedures and uses rulings that would actually be issued. This was a fantastic decision because it imposed a sort of discipline on the writer (Scott Turow), which forced him to really think through how everything needed to happen for his story to make sense. In other words, he doesn’t fake it, i.e. this story happens the only way it could in real life. That is perhaps the greatest thing you can say about a story, that the writer presented a story which simply could not have worked in any other way, and that is the case here. Not only was this an excellent and entertaining story, a creative story with an original, unpredictable and twisting plot-line acted out by deep and complex characters, but in the end there is no other way this film could have gone given the underlying facts. That is evidence of truly inspired writing. It’s also no coincidence that Presumed Innocent, in my opinion, is not only the most realistic, but also the best legal thriller out there.

30 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

James Bond will return after our holiday break next week with the next review. I also moved up the film review as you can tell because I may be away from computer on Friday.

Tennessee Jed said...

I totally concur with your assessment, as we have discussed in the past. Turow is the very best of the "Legal" genre writers. His plotting and writing is head in shoulders above the other big names. I was in awe after I read the novel, and the film makers did a wonderful job of translating it to the screen. Andrew, did you read the long awaited sequel, "Innocent"? Most people didn't want this to be written because it was a set-up for failure, but I found it to be extremely compelling. Anyway, nice review. Of course, there is one other young legal writer named Price who deserves more recognition :) Interstingly enough, I had some friends over to view the recent Blu-Ray release of "Verdict" the Barry Reid novel which was made into a screenplay by David Mamet. That is my second favorite legal movie. Not quite as realistic as Presumed Innocent, but with fantastic acting. Anyway, great review of a great film

shawn said...

Not being a lawyer, I'll have to trust your legal opinion of the technical merits. But I can say this, I love this movie. Great performances all around and the ending was excellent. I heartily endorse this as one of the better legal thrillers out there.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew: I don't want to do a spoiler here, but isn't this the film in which the real killer, who had planned everything to the nth detail, made one big mistake in covering up the evidence? Is this that film. Its been 20 years and I seem to remember being disappointed by that fact.

PikeBishop said...

Sorry that should read "planting" not covering up, totally different context there.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, This is one of the few legal thrillers where I don't cringe. Everything you see in here is like it comes straight out of a real case. That is so refreshing.

In fact, that's why I wrote my first book, because I wanted to prove to myself that you can come up with a lot of drama while following real court rules and procedures. The law is very dramatic in and of itself, without pulling a Grisham and adding fantasy to it. Yet, almost all legal thrillers head off into fantasy land to create false drama. I actually suspect that most of those books are written by people who have never set foot in a courtroom and didn't pay much attention in law school. It's too bad too because it gives people a really false idea of what happens at court.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, ** spoilers **

Yes. There was one huge mistake that allowed the case to go the way it was. But in truth, that person never expected it to go to trial. They expected Rusty would find out what happened and then declare it unsolved.

PikeBishop said...

Thanks, I just wikipediaed it too and found that out. I just remember my date commenting on it that night, about how detailed the killer had been and messing up that one detail. I had forgetten that the killed did not expect the case to go to trial.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks! :D I too like that Price guy!

Yes, we have discussed this one and it's top notch. Turow is, in my opinion, easily the best legal thriller writer. He not only has great stories and great characters, but he really understands the system. Compare that to Grisham who is pure fantasy pretty much from the opening.

And this film is a fantastic adaptation of the book -- very loyal to the source material. Sadly, I have not read "Innocent". I've been too short on time to do much of anything like pleasure reading these days.

Believe it or not, I haven't seen Verdict. I should go hunt for that. Mamet is usually top notch as well. In fact, I just re-watched Spanish Prisoner the other day for the umpteenth time and I just marvel at how impressive that film is.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That's realistic too though. As much as you think you can cover everything, there is always something you forget. That's human nature.

Tennessee Jed said...

I urge you to read "Innocent" if you have not read it. It continues to explore these complex characters, their motivations, how they impact other people close to them, and mental disorders. As I mention, the original story was so very good, it was a bit of a creative risk for Turow (though a financial no-brainer.) What makes Turow the best going is, at least in my view, a very satisfying finale to this story. When I mean satisfying, I don't necessarily mean happy or popular.

As far as "The Verdict", I say shame on you! (l.o.l.) The restoration looks great in 1080p. I just love the architecture, the way scenes were creatively shot without being overt, and the acting was great. Fans of Dexter will enjoy seeing a young Charlotte Rampling do an extraordinary job in what was probably her signature role. And of course, a young Lindsay Crouse (Mamet's ex-wife) in one of her first roles. James, Mason, Jack Warden, and, of course, Newman are just over the top professionally good. DO NOT DELAY, although Gettysburg should probably get a viewing on the 150th anniversary. BTW, Spanis Prisoner is one of those when you continue to break it down scene by scene, you realize just how good it really is.

EricP said...

Despite an amazingly full career, thanks to this movie, I will always refer to Paul Winfield as Judge MFer.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Shame on me indeed. I need to take a couple weeks off and catch up on a ton of reading and a ton of films. I've got stacks of books and films I haven't gone through yet. :(

Ohhh, wait a minute! I thought you meant something else. I'm sorry. I thought "The Verdict" was something new. Yes, I have seen that one. I enjoyed it a lot. I thought Newman was excellent as always. I didn't now that was Mamet's work? Huh.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, LOL! Same here. He used to do the voice work for "City Confidential" on A&E and I used to watch that show and I always thought of him as Judge MFer as well. :)

Tennessee Jed said...

yeah, the only other film of that title was an old Sydney Greenstreet film from the 40's. Totally different story--no relation. Never saw that, but I hear it is good.

It is Mamet's screenplay, adapted from the novel by medical malpractice turned author, Barry Reed. He has written at least one other novel featuring Newman's charcter, Frank Galvin. If one researches it, Mamet's screenplay almost didn't get used. Typical Hollywood slap and tickle, but in the end, his screenplay stayed the most faithful, and was used.

Mamet is a great talent. I tend to like his films that he wrote and directed. I like con game or grift stories so House of Cards, Spanish Prisoner, and Heist are among my very favorite of his.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I've generally liked Mamet a lot, though not always. But Glengarry Glenn Ross, Spanish Prisoner and Ronin are some of my favorite films.

EricP said...

Re. Carolyn Polhemus, really thought Greta Schachi was destined for bigger and better roles after this movie. Sadly, only The Player comes to mind. Off to IMDb ...

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, I've looked her up before as well and I can't think of anything I saw her in. Surprising, but it happens sometimes.

Tennessee Jed said...

Interesting about Greta Sacchi. Not long ago, I saw her in a suspense film she did with Tom Beringer called "Shattered". It had enormous potential, but came up a bit short. The only other film I remember her in was "Red Violin". Like Eric, I kind of expected she might do more, but it never really happened. Have to admit, her se scene with Harrison on the office desk was pretty erotic.

Andrew - Like you, I think Mamet, when he is on, is very, very, good. I have to say, I can't think of anything he has been involved with I really dis-liked, though. Either I liked a particular work a lot or, at worst, was indifferent to it. Sometimes, I think his trademark staccato dialog style, sometimes referred to as "Mamet Speak" has become almost cliche.

ScottDS said...

Haven't seen the film, unfortunately.

Like No Way Out, I'll come back in a year with a comment once I've seen it. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm going to report you to the culture people. I'm not sure you have what it takes to be an American anymore.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I guess I should have been more clear -- I don't hate any of his films, I'm just indifferent to some of them. "Wag the Dog" and "Spartan" come to mind in that category.

PikeBishop said...

Hey Guys, you're forgetting one thing about Mamet, he TOTALLY SUCKS NOW! He's over-rated, I was so wrong for all those years praising him. I am so sorry and I apologize to all of my readers (all 45 of them)

Sincerely
Big Media/Newspaper Movie Critic.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, LOL! Yep. It's amazing how liberals think. You're with us... or everything you've ever done is evil.

djskit said...

I saw this movie, maybe 15 years ago and what struck me was Ford's refrain of "I'm not guilty!".

He never pleads his "innocence" -

Not innocent indeed!

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, That's a fascinating moment in the film. It's truly uncomfortable when he says it. It feels like a lie, doesn't it?

The other moment I love is the ending with Stern, where he looks at Rusty and says, "You tell me, was justice done today?"

El Gordo said...

A fine movie. Ford has often been accused of being a wooden actor and sometimes that is true. Not here. He is very restrained in this role but he totally sells the character he is playing. His performance was so believable, it made me forget I was watching Harrison Ford.

I take that kind of acting over the mannerisms of certain "great" actors.

Today he is a man without a chest (hair) but this and The Mosquito Coast may be his best performances and they are pretty good.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, This was one of the times where Ford proved he really was a solid actor and not just Harrison Ford on screen. I don't think he's done that in a very long time, but clearly he was capable. And like you, I saw him as Rusty in this film, not as Ford.

EricP said...

>>This was one of the times where Ford proved he really was a solid actor and not just Harrison Ford on screen.>>

42, and I honestly think he'll be nominated for Supporting Actor next year for his portrayal of Branch Rickey.

Re-watching Presumed Innocent tonight and most certainly not being critical of AP's awesome commentary, but two key things which add to the movie's awesome factor: Bradley Whitford's small role on Sandy's team, and Harrison Ford donning the "Caesar" haircut long before George Clooney adopted it. All the funnier in this regard as I recall Ford at the time saying (Premiere magazine?) he chose the look in order to make his character nerdier and less attractive.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, At the time, I think it made a real difference in his appearance. He did not look like the cool action hero, he looked different... kind of creepy for people who got used to him looking like Indiana Jones and Han Solo.

On 42, could be. It was definitely a role you don't normally expect him in and he did a great job.

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