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Harrison Ford: More Than Slam-Bang : With 'Presumed Innocent,' he continues to evade the type-casting trap set by the mega hits 'Star Wars' and 'Indiana Jones'

July 22, 1990|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

As Rusty Sabich, the indicted assistant DA, Ford is a model of urban intensity, the protagonist whom the audience, like the system, has trouble presuming innocent in the teeth of the overwhelming evidence. The strength of Ford's performance is indeed an ambiguity--did he or didn't he? (no trouble believing he could have)--that is at the heart of author Scott Turow's tricky plot and his knowing, cynical view of the justice system.

" 'Presumed Innocent,' " Ford says, "is an intellectual puzzle and Alan had the tenacity and intelligence to put it all together. He is--what's the right word?-- unremitting . Yes, unremitting, that's it. Tenacious. We discussed the script for hours. But there wasn't a scene that couldn't be discussed another 10 times, always to our profit, and was. He keeps after everything. I'm a bit that way myself, so we got on fine."

The problem of adapting Turow's novel, written in the first person by Rusty himself, was immense. Adapting a mystery is always tricky, because there is invariably a very large glob of exposition at the end as the sleuth explains in detail what really happened and who was guilty and why. Some of the Agatha Christie adaptations have handled the problem by showing all the alternate explanations as Hercule Poirot ticks them off one by one.

The Turow book was doubly tricky because of the first person style and because there was no tidy everybody-in-the-library denouement, no courtroom outbursts in the grand Perry Mason tradition.

"During the bidding war for the rights," Scott Turow himself said during a telephone interview from Chicago, "everybody was saying it'll be an easy film to make. I said to myself, 'Gee, I don't know your business but it doesn't look easy to make to me.'

"There were three large narrative problems to solve. Point of view; getting around the first person narrative; time sequence; it's all flashback and Hollywood doesn't like that; and then just an awful lot of plot. I have to give Alan a great deal of credit as both director and as a writer."

Having seen Ford only in some of the action films and "Witness," Turow was initially uncertain about the casting. "If you read the physical description of Rusty in the book, of course, Harrison's perfect. Then when I saw 'Frantic' (the Roman Polanski film Ford made in France) I was pretty much convinced he was right, and when I met him I knew he was right."

Hollywood, Turow says, "used an unusual strategy with me. They treated me like a human being and so I considered myself a friend." He admits to being prejudiced but says he likes the film "quite a bit."

"I sold the rights to a classy guy, Sydney Pollack, and I knew he'd see it became a classy movie, which it did. Now I'm spoiled. I'd like to see that it happen again." The film rights to his new book, "The Burden of Proof," have not yet been sold.

Frank Pierson wrote the original script for "Presumed Innocent," which was then, Ford says, reworked right to the end of shooting. "Figuring out how to dramatize Rusty's interior monologues, as they were in the book, was really tough." The voice-overs which bracket the film were much revised, still under revision to the last days. Preserving the story's suspense and surprise to the final minutes was a tightrope act of which, you have the feeling, Hitchcock would have approved and chuckled over.

A sense of place is always helpful to the actor, and while Turow's fictional city is never named (he works in Chicago), Ford says that even the brief exterior shooting they did in Detroit was useful for providing some sense of place. Actually they also shot at a ratty housing project in New Jersey and at the courthouse in Newark. The Sabich house was in Allentown, N.J. and the courtroom and most of the courthouse interiors were shot on George Jenkins' extraordinary sets at Kaufman-Astoria Studios on Long Island.

Several of the supporting players were New York actors and working with them "is an opportunity you don't get often enough." Bonnie Bedelia, who plays his wife, impressed Ford not least by giving the same quality of performance when she was feeding him lines off-camera as when she was on camera. "Working with professionals like that is the way you keep on learning," Ford says. "Coming up slowly, as I did, you learn that stuff a bit at a time."

Ford will play a lawyer again in his next film, "Regarding Henry" with Mike Nichols directing. It's about a powerful trial lawyer who is shot in the head during a street assault and becomes an amnesiac. "I'm not happy with any descriptions of it," Ford says. "None of them seem accurate. What it's not is a case history of a head injury. It's about rebuilding relationships; it's about having a second chance, in the tradition of Scrooge and 'It's a Wonderful Life.' It's funny and touching and it's finally a fable. It's different."

Pakula says, "I don't know another actor of Harrison's stature who's so willing, so eager even, to take risks. But Ford says taking risks is what he's about. "It's been my M.O. ever since I've had enough success to have an M.O."

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