Program Notes: Presumed Innocent (1990)
Presumed Innocent will keep you guessing.
Here’s a flick that sends us up one blind alley and down another, sprinkles potential suspects in our path, and finally drops a revelation that will leave us reeling.
All this and Harrison Ford, too.
Based on the best seller by Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent is about Rusty Sabich (Ford), a big-city prosecutor charged with murdering the beautiful colleague with whom he had been having an affair.
Is Rusty guilty? Well, the evidence says so.
Though married (his neurotic wife is played by Bonnie Bedelia), Rusty has been visibly distraught since his paramour (played in flashback by Greta Scacchi) broke up with him. The dead woman’s killer had Rusty’s blood type (this was before DNA testing was commonplace). And Rusty’s fingerprints were found on a glass of beer near the body.
Moreover, before he was charged Rusty seemed to be dragging his feet in looking for the killer.
Directed by Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice), Presumed Innocent gives us a protagonist we’re not sure we trust. We want to believe in Rusty’s innocence because...well, because he’s played by Harrison Ford. But he’s starting to look pretty suspicious.
It’s doubtful that Presumed Innocent would be made today because it’s not a slam-bam exercise in suspense and drama. Pakula’s pacing might charitably be described as semi-plodding and the narrative unfolds in a low-keyed manner that is the antithesis of Hollywood’s current action-adventure mindset.
But whether by design or chance, this very deliberateness becomes one of the movie’s strengths. Like a glamorless but tireless criminal investigator, Pakula collects fact after fact, slowly building a picture of what has happened and who might be behind it until the tension is nearly unbearable.
And the film has a terrific supporting cast. Brian Dennehy was born to play a Kennedyish ward-heeler with a hypocritical streak. Raul Julia shines as a silky-smooth defense lawyer who doesn’t really want to know if Rusty is innocent or not.
And Paul Winfield very nearly steals the movie as a trial judge whose courtroom formality is replaced behind closed doors by a homeboy vocabulary and a bitingly irreverent view of the town’s white power structure.
Other films in the series “Order in the Court!”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- June 1: The First Monday in October (1981) Rated R
- June 8: The Verdict (1982) Rated R
- June 15: Presumed Innocent (1990) Rated R
- June 22: Witness for the Prosecution (1957) Not Rated
- June 29: Primal Fear (1996) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.