It’s no secret that I’m a big admirer of Alan J. Pakula and his brand of morally complex dramatic storytelling, and upon a recent revisit of his 1990 legal thriller, Presumed Innocent, I was reminded, yet again, how smooth and classy of a filmmaker he was, and how a film like this is basically non-existent on movie screens these days; material like Presumed Innocent has been sent to the ever-expanding realms of cable/premium television. This is a shame. Because sometimes, a solid potboiler is all you need when you’re searching for a piece of unpretentious cinematic entertainment. Starring Harrison Ford as a slick and successful prosecutor who is charged with the rape and murder of his mistress (the fabulously photogenic Greta Scacchi), you know from the start that not all is what it seems, and that the duplicitous characters might be holding secrets very close to the vest. Pakula and Frank Pierson co-adapted the shifty and involving screenplay which was based on the novel by bestselling author Scott Turow, and because the creative entities kept the film focused and tight, they never allowed the material to spill over into cartoonish histrionics or cheap plotting. The twists are true to the story, and felt tethered to an emotional core that you can understand if not accept; crimes of passion takes on multiple meanings in this film.
Prince of Darkness cinematographer Gordon Willis gave the film an appropriately crisp and clean visual sheen, never overplaying any one scene on an aesthetic level, instead allowing for a casually sinister vibe to creep to the surface. Evan Lottman’s brisk editing kept the pace steady and was in perfect synch with the unobtrusive yet dramatically effective musical score from John Williams and Richard Wolf. The rock-solid supporting cast consisting of John Spencer (in his debut!), Raul Julia, Brian Dennehy, Paul Winfield, and Bonnie Bedelia all provided excellent turns, while Ford got the chance to play a character who is at once a suspect and a victim, and as a result, delivered one of his more atypically conflicted performances. He’s not the usual man-of-action that many people had come to know him as from his previous films, and because of that, the material is all the richer for having him as the lead. A massive box office smash at the time of its summer release, this is one of those sturdy films that has played on cable forever, and recalls a simpler time in Hollywood where not every single picture was designed to either win 10 Oscars or sell lunch pails off of the back of a $250 million mega-production with endless CGI nonsense.