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Film review: Presumed Innocent

Published: Monday, July 30 1990 12:00 a.m. MDT

If you're a fan of complex murder mysteries that are not easily solved yet leave real clues rather than red herrings, "Presumed Innocent" is the movie for you.

Based on Scott Turow's best-selling novel and directed with style by Alan J. Pakula ("Klute," "Sophie's Choice," "All the President's Men"), "Presumed Innocent" is a first-rate, intelligent thriller/courtroom drama of the kind we see all too seldom these days.

Harrison Ford has the lead as Rusty Sabich, a big-city assistant prosecutor accused of murdering a colleague with whom he had had an affair. And the question is begged throughout the film — did he or didn't he?

The basic premise here isn't unfamiliar ground. And we learn early on that Rusty is both an unlikely suspect and the most likely suspect. But truth is not easily deduced.

Rusty began his career as an idealistic young attorney and has now become a seasoned realist, and he still cares about the victims in his cases. His boss, the chief prosecutor (Brian Dennehy), doesn't want the negative publicity when their colleague (Greta Scacchi) is found murdered, so he assigns Rusty to the case. "Make it go away" is the message.

On the home front, Rusty's wife (Bonnie Bedelia) hasn't yet gotten over her husband's indiscretion, and their marriage is still rocky.

Eventually, as Rusty probes deeper into the murder, he realizes evidence is beginning to point in his own direction, and it isn't long before he's formally charged.

The film then shifts gears somewhat as it focuses on courtroom procedure, with a high-rolling defense attorney (Raul Julia) taking the case, arguing before an acerbic, no-nonsense judge (Paul Winfield).

"Presumed Innocent" has all kinds of unexpected plot and character twists as it weaves its complex and occasionally torrid tale. We see in flashbacks how Rusty fell for this designing woman and we begin to see that there certainly was motive — if he did commit the crime.

At the core of all of this is Ford, who has proven his versatility outside the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" trilogies quite well with the likes of "Witness," "Mosquito Coast," "Frantic" and "Working Girl." With "Presumed Innocent" he adds another complicated and fascinating character to the list.

In fact, Ford is quite remarkable as he shapes this portrait of a sensitive lawyer who has been paying psychologically and emotionally for an obsession that stays with him even after the object of his desire is found murdered. Ford's low-key sense of realism is perfect and he makes the character most compelling.

Further, the story itself and Pakula's tense direction add an extra layer by teasing the audience from start to finish with the question of whether Rusty is guilty. Is this going to be another "Jagged Edge" or will the killer be revealed as someone else at the last minute? If you haven't read the book, you are likely to remain unsure until the film's final moments.

It's been awhile since a movie has served up this kind of tension, maintained it for the film's entire length and managed a satisfying conclusion. Some, like last fall's "Sea of Love," have wonderful elements in place but self-destruct before they near the denouement.

"Presumed Innocent" declines to play all its best cards in the first hour and keeps us guessing. In addition there is that great supporting cast, with special kudos to Bedelia, Winfield, Julia and, as Rusty's down-and-dirty detective-friend, John Spencer.

Alan J. Pakula is a talented director (he also co-wrote the script) and he has constructed a film here that works quite well on every level. But he does make some odd choices.

First, in an apparent effort to contrast the sleazy personal lives of these characters with their required civility in the courtroom, he includes in the film's first half an abundance of gratuitous profanity, spoken even by characters who seem unlikely to use such language, as well as a pair of steamy sex scenes. In the second half, as we enter the courtroom, all of these excesses virtually vanish. None of it is as over-the-top as, say, "Sea of Love," but the use of profanity and sex here do seem rather mechanical and overly theatrical.

Also, one of the problems with transferring a book to the screen is that each is a very different medium and there is sometimes the temptation to impose the former on the latter. Hence, "Presumed Innocent" tends to be a bit talky, plot-thick and overly complicated at times — especially in the first half-hour or so.

Still and all, "Presumed Innocent" is one of the summer's best offerings. Let's hope it stands out as the class act it is in a season of far too much pointless screen mayhem.

"Presumed Innocent" is rated R for profanity, sex, nudity and violence.