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‘Presumed Innocent’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 27, 1990

What people hate most about movie critics is that they seem to delight in giving away the plot twist or the surprise ending. The makers of "Presumed Innocent" know this. They also know that the main thing their competent, resolutely unflashy murder mystery/courtroom drama has going for it is an unanswered-to-the-end question: "Did he or didn't he? And if he didn't, who did?"

So the studio sent out imploring letters to critics everywhere: "Please don't reveal the ending in whatever you write or say on the air," they begged. And "Please don't reveal if Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) is guilty or innocent."

Not to worry, guys. I was kept blissfully in the dark (if not exactly on the edge of my seat) till the end of the movie, and anyway, I'd never dream of spoiling someone else's sleuthing.

What I can say is that in this faithful-to-the-letter adaptation of lawyer Scott Turow's 1987 bestseller, Ford plays assistant D.A. Sabich, who leaves his ostensibly happy home one morning for the office and finds his boss waiting for him with Bad News: Carolyn Polhemus, a beautiful young lawyer Sabich has been secretly involved with, has been murdered. And Sabich is assigned to the case.

Sabich drags his feet on the case, "forgetting" to submit crucial physical evidence to the lab for examination. But when fingerprints finally surface, they finger Sabich himself as the prime suspect. Up against it, Sabich hires his own longtime rival to defend him in the trial, and it's a toughie -- the case is further complicated by an impending election, missing criminal case files, marital discord and a victim who seems to have slept with everyone but the jury.

Director Alan J. Pakula sets the story at a methodical, unhurried pace, with a tone of sober, almost drab, realism enlivened by occasional flashes of courtroom drollery (and a smidgen of sex, when Sabich and Polhemus indulge in a desktop celebration after a successful child abuse prosecution).

Everyone in the cast underplays competitively, but no one can underplay like Ford. Here, the action-movie hero is required to react to awful evidence and accusations for much of the movie. When he does speak, it's in a barely intelligible mumble, and his haunted, hangdog look -- he's a legal beagle -- serves him well and never tips us off. Ford and Pakula do a good job of keeping you wondering ifhedunit till the end.

Bonnie Bedelia is dependably radiant as Sabich's wronged wife Barbara, and Greta Scacchi seems to carry her own light source as the sexy, aggressively careerist victim Carolyn, glimpsed only in gory evidence photos and Sabich's flashbacks. Raul Julia is an intellectual iceberg with satisfyingly sharp edges as Sabich's defense attorney. Brian Dennehy is hissably reptilian as Sabich's turncoat boss, and Joe Grifasi leaves you with no choice but to despise his wormlike prosecutor.

By the way, it's not always the critics who are the bad guys as far as endings are concerned: Some guy in my row figured it all out a few beats ahead of the rest of us, and was so proud he couldn't keep his conclusion to himself. We critics are playing fair this time -- now it's up to you.

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