Argumentative August #14 – Presumed Innocent (1990) – The Joy and Agony of Movies


Ryan and I would like to once again welcome you to another review for our Argumentative August Blogathon.


This next film, Presumed Innocent (1990) is being reviewed by Sean of The Joy and Agony of Movies


Let’s see what Sean thought of this movie….


Presumed Innocent (1990)


About 2/3 of the way into Michael Mann’s The Insider, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a former Brown & Williamson (the tobacco company) research scientist turned whistleblower, is on the phone with Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for 60 Minutes. Wigand gave an interview to 60 Minutes where, among other things, he accused his former bosses and other Big Tobacco companies of lying when they said they didn’t know about the health effects of cigarettes, and Brown & Williamson has hit back, first by threatening CBS with a lawsuit (which makes them temporarily pull the story, which makes Bergman livid), and second by smearing Wigand with a proposed news article bringing up his past (Doug McGrath, an actor (Quiz Show) and writer/director (Infamous), plays the man hired to dig up dirt on Wigand; we see him walk past Wigand while he’s on the pay phone at the school where he currently teaches). Bergman, of course, wants to know why Wigand didn’t tell him any of what was in the article (that he claimed to be on the Olympic judo team, that he hit his first wife), while Wigand refutes many of the claims, but eventually he loses his temper and asks, “Whose life, if you look at it under a microscope, doesn’t have any flaws?” Bergman points out that’s all the more reason Wigand needs to be straight with him on his life, so Bergman can defend Wigand against the smear campaign. Wigand, in turn, insists all that matters is the fact he told the truth in the interview (as well as in testimony in a civil suit involving Brown & Williamson), and keeps doing so until Bergman, exasperated, yells, “That’s not the fucking point whether you told the truth or not!”

That scene touches on something that has become increasingly apparent in jury trials in this country, or at least the ones receiving media coverage; the fact of whether you’re telling the truth is secondary to the perception of you, whether by the public, the media, the jury, or the judge. That perception is the subject of two different legal dramas that came out in 1990; Presumed Innocent, Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of the best-selling novel by Scott Turow (which Pakula also co-wrote with Frank Pierson), and Reversal of Fortune, Barbet Schroeder’s docudrama about Claus Von Bulow’s successful appeal of his attempted murder conviction (adapted by Nicholas Kazan from the book by Alan Dershowitz, Von Bulow’s lawyer for the appeal). Warning: spoilers for Presumed Innocent below.


Raymond (Brian Dennehy) tells Rusty (Harrison Ford) about Carolyn’s murder.

“I’m a prosecutor. I’m part of the business of accusing, judging, and punishing. I explore the evidence of a crime and determine who is charged, who is brought to this room to be tried before his peers. I present my evidence to the jury and they deliberate upon it. They must determine what really happened. If they cannot, we will not know whether the accused deserves to be freed or should be punished. If they cannot find the truth, what is our hope of justice?”

That’s the opening monologue of Rozat “Rusty” Sabich (Harrison Ford), the main character of Presumed Innocent, and it’s said in voiceover before the credits roll (it’s also edited down somewhat from the opening part of the novel). It’s significant that while we hear these words, we’re watching an empty courtroom and jury box, for this is the film’s way of telling us we, the audience are the jury. What’s slightly different here, however, is we ultimately find out what happened, but it’s left to us, the viewer (and, in the novel, the reader) to find out whether justice was done anyway.

Greta Scacchi as Carolyn Polhemus, convincing Rusty to take a case.

As in the novel, the movie is about how Rusty gets caught up in a legal nightmare of his own. Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), another prosecutor in the Kindle County D.A.’s office, is found murdered in her apartment. Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy), Rusty’s boss, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign for D.A., assigns Rusty to the case. Rusty, however, makes some questionable decisions. He forgets to follow-up on getting fingerprints from a glass found in the apartment. Rusty also replaces Harold Greer (Tucker Smallwood), the detective in charge of the case, with his friend Dan Lipranzer (John Spencer), and tells Lipranzer not to disclose the fact he had called Carolyn several times from his place. Even though the office is admittedly short-staffed thanks to the murder and to the fact Tommy Molto (Joe Grifasi), another prosecutor, has gone missing (presumably defecting over to Nico Della Guardia (Tom Mardirosian), a former prosecutor who’s running against Raymond), Rusty still seems, according to Raymond, more interested in handling the administrative duties of the office then pressing on Carolyn’s murder. Finally, though no one knows except for Lipranzer and Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia), Rusty’s wife, Rusty in fact had an affair with Carolyn (after he helped her win a child abuse case) until she broke it off, and he’s still obsessed with her. So after Nico wins the election, all of this suspicious behavior, plus the fact Rusty’s fingerprints were on a glass in Carolyn’s apartment, carpet fibers in the apartment matched fibers from Rusty’s house, and there was a call from Rusty’s house to Carolyn the night she was killed, lead Molto and Nico to accuse Rusty of murdering Carolyn. Rusty can’t believe it, especially since the timing seems suspicious; in investigating Carolyn’s old cases (on the theory someone she helped put away might have wanted to take revenge), he discovered a “B” file, or bribery case, which was outside of her normal purview (she usually handled rape and abuse cases), and right before Rusty was accused of murder, he found out Molto had been involved in the case, and that Lipranzer had been pulled from the investigation, so he suspects a frame-up. Rusty explains this to his lawyer, Alejandro “Sandy” Stern (Raul Julia) – Rusty’s opponent in many other cases before this – who is skeptical at first, but then brings it up at trial, even though Rusty had agreed it wasn’t good strategy, and even though Judge Larren Lyttle (Paul Winfield) seemed determined not to let Stern bring it up. Is Rusty really guilty, or is something else going on here?

Rusty tries to convince his lawyer Sandy Stern (Raul Julia) he’s being framed.

Like many directors who became well known in the 70’s, Pakula had fallen on hard times in the 80’s. With the exception of Sophie’s Choice, the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama starring Meryl Streep, none of the other films he had done – the corporate thriller Rollover, the psychological thriller Dream Lover, the oddball comedy/drama Orphans, and the romantic drama See You in the Morning – had made much impact on critics or audiences. So adapting a novel that was not only a best-seller but was also considered a phenomenon (this was the first novel by Turow, who had previously written a book about his law school days called One L; he has since become an established author) might have just seemed like a way to seem relevant again. But Pakula never condescends to the material, but show great care with it. For starters, working with cinematographer Gordon Willis (their fifth collaboration), Pakula avoids the slick look that characterizes many courtroom dramas, and, as per usual in a movie shot by Willis (nicknamed the “Prince of Darkness”), shoots it mostly in muted colors, to emphasize the seriousness of the story. Also, Pakula and editor Evan Lottman (another frequent Pakula collaborator; this was their fifth and final film together) keep things evenly paced, and never juice up any of the story’s twists (more on those in a moment).

Lipranzer (John Spencer) conveys his suspicions to Rusty.

Obviously in adapting a 400+ page novel to two hour and change movie for the screen, some things have to go, and Pakula and Pierson in general do a good job of paring thins down. Except for the opening and closing scenes, there’s no first-person narration. There’s no psychiatrist that Rusty confesses his affair with Carolyn to, the  courtroom testimonies are shortened (especially Raymond’s) or eliminated (we don’t hear from Eugenia (Anna Maria Horsford), Rusty’s secretary, who claims she overheard Rusty and Carolyn on the phone together, but under cross-examination admits it might have had to do with the case they were working on). More important than all of that is the change in emphasis that Pakula and Pierson make, and the parts they ended up changing. For the latter, some of the changes are minor (instead of Rusty talking to Carolyn’s son from her previous marriage, Rusty instead talks to her ex-husband (Michael Tolan)), but there are two crucial changes in the story. There are two major twists involving the trial in both novel and movie; the revelation Carolyn had her tubes tied so she’d no longer be able to have a child, which implies a crucial piece of medical evidence may have been manufactured by Molto and Dr. Ted “Painless” Kumagai (Sab Shimono), the coroner*, and also the main culprit involved in the “B” file was none other than Judge Lyttle (who was also seeing Carolyn at the time), and Sandy was bringing it up to let the judge know he’d bring it up in court if certain things did not go his way. In the novel, we get the doctor’s testimony first and then Rusty and Lipranzer, when they track down Leon Wells (Leland Gantt), the name in the original complaint, find out about the judge, whereas in the movie, the order is reversed. I’m not entire sure why this is, but either way, it makes a troubling statement about the justice system that unfortunately still seems to be true today; that saying you’re innocent of the crime you’re accused of may not be enough.

Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia) confesses to Rusty.

Which leads to the final twist, where we find out the real murderer of Carolyn was none other than Barbara, Rusty’s wife. In the novel, Rusty manages to figure this out thanks to certain clues that pop up (the phone call to Carolyn’s apartment the night of the murder, the fact Rusty figures out the glass with his fingerprints on it was in fact from their own house), and when Barbara leaves him to take a job somewhere else (though near enough so Rusty can still see their son Nat (Jesse Bradford)), she apologizes and says she was willing to testify that she was the one who did it, while Rusty also apologizes and says no one would have believed her testimony; he also reveals the motivation for the crime, and the way it was carried out, to Lipranzer when he brings over the glass (the prosecution forgot he had it, and he never brought it up, so it was presumed missing, which also helped Rusty’s defense). Rusty reveals Barbara was the one who called Carolyn, went over to her apartment, hit her over the head with a garden tool to kill her, tied her up, opened the windows as a piece of misdirection, and injected her own spermicide from her own diaphragm (which had led Sandy to believe Dr. Kumagai was either incompetent or criminal), all to indicate to Rusty who the real killer was, while unwittingly planting clues to make him the number one suspect, which she never intended and made her feel remorseful when it happened. Pakula and Pierson make it more ambiguous by implying all the way to the end that Rusty still might be the killer; after Sandy explains to Rusty the purpose of bringing up the “B” file when the charges have been dismissed, he pointedly asks Rusty if justice has been done, and while the scene between Lipranzer and Rusty where the former gives the latter the glass, and asks him if he did kill Carolyn (“The lady was bad news”) is similar to how it plays in the novel, in the novel, it takes place in Rusty’s house and leads to Rusty revealing Barbara’s role, while in the movie, it takes place on a ferry, and ends with Rusty denying it and throwing the glass in the water. This implies Rusty’s guilt even if he wasn’t the one who ultimately killed Carolyn (this also again is keeping in line with that opening shot, making us the jury, trying to figure out what happened). And as for the former, the change in emphasis, in the novel, Turow concentrates as much on the office politics as on Rusty’s family, while in the movie, the family takes center stage, so Barbara’s confession doesn’t come out of left field. Speaking of her confession, originally, Pakula was going to cut the confession out entirely, until Bedelia got ahold of an earlier draft that had the confession, and gave such a passionate reading of it that Pakula was convinced to keep it in.

                             Judge Lyttle (Paul Winfield) in conference with the lawyers at the bench.

Along with the fact this was an adaptation of a best-selling, as well as critically acclaimed novel, the biggest press this received at the time was Ford’s haircut for Rusty. In Jared Brown’s biography of Pakula, Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life, Ford (who also wrote the introduction to the book) said he did so to show Rusty’s complete lack of ego (which explains why he demurs when both Carolyn and Nico – also referred to as “Delay”** – think he should have positioned himself for Raymond’s job because they think he would have been a sure thing) and as a way of illustrating the depths of his obsession with Carolyn. Pakula and Ford also show the depths of Rusty’s obsession in other ways, such as his flashbacks to looking at Carolyn just lying in bed, or the thousand-yard stare he has when he’s up at night just thinking about her, or the way he spies on her after she’s taken another lover. Also, Ford had made his mark at playing active roles, and this is a rare passive role, yet he pulls it off completely. The rest of the cast is also terrific. Had I been a member of the Academy, I would have voted for Julia as best supporting actor; though his best known performances (Gomez in the Addams Family movies, the evil General Bison in Street Fighter, political prisoner Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman) find him playing more broadly, here, he’s restrained, and shows his intelligence and cunning through subtle means, especially when he’s cross-examining Raymond (who testifies against Rusty) and Dr. Kumagai. Speaking of Raymond, because the part was cut down, we don’t see the remorse Raymond feels when he realizes Rusty was screwed over, but Dennehy does play the rest of the part well, showing the shell of the man yet making us see what was once there, and the anger and betrayal he feels when he honestly thinks Rusty did it. Lipranzer is also cut down somewhat, but Spencer also does a terrific job of playing a jaded cop who nonetheless has his own moral code, however bruised it may be.` And while Lyttle and Molto’s parts are also cut down somewhat, both Winfield and Grifasi do a good job at showing the hidden resentments inside them. The key roles, of course, are Carolyn and Barbara; Scacchi allows us to see what would make several men obsessed with her, and yet also suggests there’s more to her than that (especially in a still photograph of her in her younger days), as well as the broken bird inside, and in addition to making her confession at the end work like gangbusters, thanks to the deliberate way she delivers it, Bedelia is also excellent at showing Barbara’s anger, intelligence, and unexpected sympathy. Presumed Innocent showed how well one could make a popular story that still raises troubling questions.

*-In the novel, we find out during Sandy’s cross-examination Dr. Kumagai got his nickname of “Painless” because of an autopsy he had bungled; the prosecutor on the case claimed the only one who found it painless to work with Dr. Kumagai was the corpse, because it was dead.

**-Also in the novel, we find out Nico Della Guardia is nicknamed “Delay” for his inability to complete a brief on time; the chief deputy called him “Unavoidable Delay Guardia”.

`-Trivia note; both Spencer and Bradley Whitford (who plays Sandy’s associate Jamie Kemp) went on to appear in The West Wing together nearly a decade later, though they don’t share any scenes here.

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