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‘Presumed Innocent’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 27, 1990

With his mowed hair and tortured eyes, Harrison Ford looks more like a mental patient than an attorney undone by deadly sin. Yet "Presumed Innocent" reveals an achingly soulful side of the chronic swashbuckler, in fine if disheveled fettle as an adulterous prosecutor on trial for his lover's murder.

Based on the bestseller by Scott Turow, this jurisprudent tragedy feels as old as Samson and Delilah, and as patriarchal. Close kin to "Fatal Attraction," but more earnestly told, it is a cautionary treatise on the wages of fooling around in the office (death for her, despair for him). But mostly it is a solid whodunit, driven by subtext and the intensity of Ford, Greta Scacchi as the predatory other woman and Bonnie Bedelia as the wronged wife.

Ford is the moth-eaten Rusty Sabich, a county prosecutor assigned to investigate the death of Carolyn Polhemus (Scacchi), a sluttish colleague believed to have been killed by one of the sex offenders she had prosecuted. Still haunted by his obsession for her, Sabich is naturally loath to take on the case for fear of reopening old wounds and further distressing his whimpering wife, Barbara. But his boss, chief prosecuting attorney Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy), insists.

Horgan's political ambitions and sexual peccadilloes also impinge upon the mystery, a puzzle of false clues, multiple motives and refutable evidence. Everyone believes Sabich dunnit, and he even seems to doubt himself as the evidence -- fingerprints, sperm samples, carpet fibers -- mounts against him. When he is inevitably charged with the crime, Sabich turns to his frequent courtroom nemesis, Sandy Stern, to defend him. Raul Julia, his ham in a can, is unusually subdued as an Argentine-born Perry Mason who pleads his case before Larren Lyttle (Paul Winfield), a no-nonsense judge. But before the culprit is known, the entire legal community stands accused.

Co-written by director Alan J. Pakula and Frank Pierson, "Presumed Innocent" inquires into the nature of justice itself. Is it the antidote for passion or merely its antithesis? The film opens and closes on a jury box, vacant save for its straight-backed leather chairs. The fates, it seems to suggest, will have as much to say about this crime and punishment as will Sabich's peers.

Using a static visual style, a mingling of shadows and looming camera angles, Pakula reflects the novel's internalized storytelling style. As the adapter of "Sophie's Choice" and "All the President's Men," he is certainly familiar with the process. A thoughtful filmmaker, devoted to adult topics, he is an exception in the summer action trough. He's obviously asked his actors for restraint, the better to reveal Sabich's terrible anguish, his inability to cope with raw emotion. No shattered glass, just shattered souls.

Pakula, who also directed "Klute," revisits the mise en sce`ne of the crime of obsession, the repressed Midwestern investigator and the conniving whore. As Polhemus, Scacchi is a peaches and cream climber -- the most interesting character in the movie and alas, already dead. Sabich misses her, and we do too. Bedelia is all bruised, brave perseverance, the most pitiful of creatures when she tries to excite her husband's interest. He has no passion for her, just as the movie, for all its striving, lacks the passion it so assiduously courts.

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