23 December 2009

ALAN J. PAKULA: PRESUMED INNOCENT (1990)

And y'all thought I had given up on the Pakulathon.

To greet the 1990s, Alan J. Pakula directed and co-wrote (with Frank Pierson) an adaptation of Scott Turow's legal thriller Presumed Innocent, a film that works not unlike a grab-bag of narrative tropes from earlier successes - and failures - in the director's career. There's a "wrong man" angle, as seen in The Parallax View; a sordid sexual history leading to current woes, as in Klute; a fixation on the details of procedure, in the vein of Rollover and All the President's Men (though here the process is law, not finance or journalism); and there's a lot of energy spent looking at the protagonist's marital state, which is true in some way of about half of Pakula's films. In other words, it's pretty easy to see what drew the director to the material, especially since it tended to recall his earlier, more successful films, rather than the odd little domestic films that he'd begun focusing on in the 1980s; having not made a film that made even the slightest box office since Sophie's Choice in 1982, four movies earlier.

Starring Harrison Ford, who had just enjoyed a very high-profile decade and had quite a few movies yet to go before his star began to fade, alongside white-hot names like Bonnie Bedelia, Brian Dennehy, and John Spencer, Presumed Innocent ended up being just exactly the box-office hit that Pakula needed to keep his career alive at the start of its third decade: not a smash success, but by far his biggest success since All the President's Men. And for the most part, it's not absolutely hard to see why. The film is not up to the level of his greatest thrillers, certainly, but for about 105 of its 127 minutes, it's one of the better-written and better-paced samples of the courtroom dramas that were so curiously prominent in the latter half of the 1980s and most of the 1990s. No masterpiece, but it has a certain snappiness to it that is entertaining, at least.

Ford plays Rozat "Rusty" Sabich, a prosecutor in the vaguely-identified Kindle County (Turow meant for it to be identified with Cook County, IL, and while the movie was mostly filmed in Detroit and a studio in New York, I'd swear on my life and my blog that there's a shot prominently featuring Chicago's Navy Pier and John Hancock building in the background), who gets a spot of bad news one day from his boss, Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy): another prosecutor, Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi) was found raped and murdered in her apartment that morning. Horgan forces Sabich to take the lead on solving the murder, and to solve it quickly: the successful handling of this one case will probably be the single deciding factor in the upcoming election which is likely going to see Horgan on his ass, replaced by his former subordinate Nico Della Guardia (Tom Mardirosian). There's just one glaring problem: much unbeknown to to Horgan, Sabich and Polhemus had an affair some months earlier, which has since ended with Sabich's wife Barbara (Bedelia) forgiving him, although Sabich was still pretty well obsessed with his ex-lover right up until finding that she was dead. So he unwisely asks his friend in the police Homicide division, Detective Lipranzer (Spencer) to help him cover up any trace of his involvement with the woman.

After a few days of no forward development, Della Guardia wins the election, and he and his new deputy Tommy Molto (Joe Grifasi) waste no time in announcing their intention to prosecute Sabich himself for the crime, having spotted a great number of irregularities that can be best answered if the investigator was protecting himself. Sabich acquires the defense attorney who he once considered his greatest opponent, Sandy Stern (Raul Julia), and straps in for a potentially humiliating and lengthy trial where his dirty laundry is likely to get a good airing for the whole county to see.

At it's very best, Presumed Innocent still isn't the kind of movie that's going to set the world on fire, but it cannot be said that Pakula, even in the waning days of his career, didn't have a good mind for how to keep a procedural narrative skimming along smoothly and efficiently; he even manages to successfully navigate what by all rights ought to have been a crippling flaw, when the film abruptly and without warning switches from being a story of Sabich's investigation to the story of his indictment. The director keeps the movie going fast enough from one plot point to another that we never have a good chance to notice, until after it's over, how thinly stretched the story can be at some of its most convoluted turns. Nor, indeed, how absurdly swiftly the plot jets forward, often folding what seems like days of incident into the space of a single cut.

The bare minimum requirement for a film like this - like either portion, the investigation or the courtroom sequences - is that it be interesting to watch the protagonist thinking and discovering, and while this is largely a matter of personal taste, I found that Presumed Innocent meets this requirement. It is not nearly as durable a character study as Pakula and Pierson seem to wish that it should be (and this is a double pity, for one of Pakula's best strengths in the 1970s was his invisible ability to combine interesting character drama with genre storytelling); and this is mostly because the filmmakers want to leave open the possibility, as long as they can, that Sabich might indeed be guilty of Polhemus's murder. That's a fine approach for a movie to take, except that the film largely ignores it for the entire duration of the trial, and only whips it out as a third act "wait, you don't really know what's going on!" tweak. But in order for that tweak to work, we need to be denied access to Sabich's innermost thoughts for the preceding hour and 50 minutes, which in turn means that we don't ever get to know him. Which fits uncomfortably with the director's obvious desire to film Sabich with the same psychoanalytical focus that he used more or less successfully for nearly all of his previous characters. In essence, Presumed Innocent can only work as an entertaining courtroom thriller, because it's too conflicted about how it wants to present its third act to do much thematically interesting with its first and second acts. It has pleasures in abundance: Ford and Julia are both acting at a greatly elevated level, and the mechanical aspects of the plot are more than entertaining. But there's no depth.

Even being little more than a slick entertainment, the film is still good enough to suffer horribly from its ending: a twist ending obvious enough that you've probably already thought about it, but so stupid that you can't believe they actually went there, and disgustingly riddled with holes. The killer's motivations make sense, but the rationale behind the killing, and the incredibly complex frame job, absolutely do not. And what the ending says about gender relationships is incredibly disappointing, especially from a director who had in the past overseen so many interesting and deep female characters.

There are some movies like that: they have such a completely atrocious ending that it spoils everything that went before. As Presumed Innocent wasn't that outstanding to begin with, its fall is not that severe; and my sense of it is still that it's an enjoyable bit of a thriller. But my god, the last quarter hour - that is just raw, unforgivable badness. Coupled with the fact that Pakula's gentle slide into forgetting how to make movies that look interesting continued unabated - and this time, he dragged down Gordon Willis with him, their first collaboration since 1978's Comes a Horseman having none of the creativity, beauty, or moody impact of their great string of '70s visual masterpieces (Willis, it should be noted, was having a pretty rough time of the late 1980s himself) - and it's hard to see Presumed Innocent as anything but the most disposably entertainment. It has some tight editing, maybe, and the sound design remains as great as ever in a Pakula film. But it did not promise much from Pakula in the 1990s, and he would not break that promise.

1 comment:

Arctor said...

Ah, I think it would be good to stop this hack-writing habit - sweeping, overconfident generalizations that are never backed up.

Look, what are these disgustingly bad plot holes? It's getting to be quite a habit of yours, a bad one.

I myself see this film like Unforgiven. Both generate almost all their narrative thrust through negating the genre's stereotypes.

It makes for interesting viewing the first time around, but repeat viewings feel flat and limp. I think Paul Winfield is a great, wise, judge from the street - who ends up crooked. Julia is the arch nemesis - who must defend Ford. The wife is limp and passive - but is an MIT level mathematician who outschemes them all and hides by virtue of her mouse-ness. And so on. (Polhemus is just a femme fatale, that much is pure trope.)

Same deal can be done for Unforgiven - hero's best friend gives him up during torture, killing the bad guy feels bad, the damsel in distress isn't quite so much one, etc.

Same shallow screenwriting at work in both. I think Presumed carries it off better, because the characters are better drawn and more colorful, and there is a better sense of suspense.

Unforgiven has nothing beneath or behind it; it's only this negation of Clint's early mythic years that is fueling its import. Blechh.

And Ford, this is his attempt to negate himself, (like Mosquito Coast), by playing unlikable leads. He's weak, a slave to the sexual charisma of a blonde sex goddess. Aren't we all.

So, I think the review missed some important stuff here. I also didn't note the abrupt switch in the movie. Where exactly did that happen? (Another overconfident assertion undefended...)