Periodically, a best-seller comes along that seems tantalizingly right for the movies. More often than not, the book turns out to have greater cinematic excitement — more of the suspenseful, atmospheric rush we expect from movies — than the film it inspires. That’s certainly the case with Presumed Innocent. Scott Turow’s 1987 blockbuster is by no means a great novel, but it has some of the dense, propulsive immediacy of a top-drawer Hollywood thriller. Rusty Sabich, the Midwestern prosecutor and family man who is put on trial for murder, is a contemporary cousin to all those smart but desperate film-noir schlubs (like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity) who fall for some impossibly sexy, calculating goddess — a once-in-a-lifetime woman — and end up giving in to desires they’ve repressed for years.
Did Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) commit murder? Did he kill Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), the femme-fatale prosecutor who enflamed his dreams and then heartlessly dumped him? For most of the movie we watch Harrison Ford scowl in 14 different ways as a succession of tense, ferrety men stand around courtrooms and dingy offices assaulting him with circumstantial evidence. Rusty called Carolyn’s house the night of the murder! His fingerprints were on the beer glass! He tried to gum up the very investigation he was in charge of! Through it all, one question — did he or didn’t he? — practically flashes on the screen in neon. But that’s not the question that made Presumed Innocent such a galvanizing page-turner.
Turow’s novel was a murder-trial thriller in which the tension sprung less from the usual melodramatics of evidence — missing clues revealed at just the right instant — than from the mysterious, almost subtextual interplay of personalities in the courtroom. That’s what made the book such a terrific movie: Turow’s characters weren’t complex, yet beneath their words you felt you were scanning and reading them — the body language, the densely interpersonal webs of loyalty and resentment.
Director Alan J. Pakula, who cowrote the script with Frank Pierson, has done a reasonable job of compressing Turow’s plot into a two-hour space. But the narrative skeleton is all that’s left. The characters who seemed so urgent in the novel have been reduced to pawns in an utterly typical and arbitrary courtroom whodunit. (The big twist at the end is pure True Crime pulp — but then it was that way in the book, too.)
For the possibility of Rusty’s guilt to entice us dramatically, we need to glimpse a subterranean fever in his personality. That’s where Pakula is at his weakest. His direction isn’t just dispassionate, it’s dead from the waist down. Greta Scacchi is one of the most ripely erotic presences in contemporary movies, and she’s well matched with Ford, even if his new, butch hairdo gives him the appearance of a rather quizzical medieval friar. But after a few hot, suggestive looks, the Big Sex Scene arrives, and as staged by Pakula it’s like a wax-museum version of a late-night-at-the-office tryst. The affair unfolds in such a perfunctory fashion — the one emotional moment comes when Carolyn blithely gives Rusty the heave-ho — that it doesn’t anchor the movie the way it needs to.
The convolutions of Turow’s plot remain absorbing, and Presumed Innocent is certainly as watchable as a lot of other courtoom-investigative thrillers. Yet almost everything in the picture feels sterile and posed. Pakula is good at laying out an intricate, almost mathematical series of events (his best film remains All the President’s Men), but he’s not big on atmosphere. The movie could have used some of the bowels-of-the-city grit Sidney Lumet brought to Q & A.
Presumed Innocent is really just a succession of red herrings, with Harrison Ford in the middle of it all, doing his magnetic yet weirdly one-note soulful-suffering number. Bonnie Bedelia is vibrantly angry and sorrowful as Rusty’s wife, who has been scalded by his adultery, and John Spencer has just the right sad-sack integrity as his loyal cohort, the runty Detective Lipranzer. And Raul Julia underplays (for once) as the Argentinian defense lawyer Sandy Stern, who takes a Zen delight in the invisibility of his courtroom tactics. Paul Winfield, on the other hand, goes at the crucial role of Judge Lyttle with such disconcertingly fey exuberance that I kept expecting him to throw off his robes and launch into a hearty chorus of ”I’ve Gotta Be Me.” B-