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MOVIE REVIEW : A Solid Case : Film: 'Presumed Innocent' brilliantly captures the novel's essence, and features a tour de force performance from Harrison Ford.

July 27, 1990|SHEILA BENSON | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Intelligent, complex and enthralling, "Presumed Innocent" (citywide) is one of those rare films where all the players seem to be in a state of grace, where the working of the machinery never shows and after it's over, one runs and reruns its intricacies with a profound sense of satisfaction.

In his original novel, Scott Turow, a prosecuting attorney himself, worked from a fascinating hypothesis: Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford), a respected Midwestern prosecuting attorney, a man solidly wedded to the law and its principles, suddenly gets a reverse view of its workings when he becomes a suspect in the lurid sex murder of a colleague with whom he had had a torrid affair.

Turow's fans will be pleased to know that Frank Pierson and the film's director, Alan J. Pakula, have made an uncommonly sensitive adaptation of what's been called a bullet train of a book. Their changes in Turow's vividly detailed novel are smart; if in the process interesting but non-essential characters have been erased, if a certain depth has been stripped from a central character and an endangered marriage has been set on its feet again, this is, after all, the idealized world of movies. Streamlining notwithstanding, the book's essence remains intact.

Surely, no reader is going to quibble that the novel's coolly ambitious prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus has dropped a dozen or so years and a teen-age son to become Greta Scacchi--not when that actress' measured glance and apricot-colored skin could spark lust from granite. Scacchi's time onscreen is relatively brief but Gordon Willis, the film's great cinematographer, has summed up her impact in one ravishingly beautiful shot. As Carolyn gazes steadily at the camera, the look Willis catches is unguarded, unambiguous lust, a tool she wields with intensity--and ambition--enough to cause shock waves in even a marriage as seemingly secure as the Sabiches'.

"Presumed Innocent" looks properly rich and Midwestern, one wouldn't be wrong to take its hypothetical Kindle County for Illinois' once famously corrupt Cook County, where author Turow has practiced law. Its extremes are summed up for us succinctly: the linen-wallpapered suites of the high-end lawyers and the crowded prosecutors' digs with all the charm of a welfare office; the suave intelligence of Raul Julia's defense attorney Alejandro "Sandy" Stern, and the too-sharp tailoring and ferrety air of Joe Grifasi's Tommy Molto, out to nail Sabich.

The film's best actors are a formidable lot; Paul Winfield, whose complex judge, Larren Lyttle, is invested with a rumbling humor as well as power; John Spencer's quintessential detective, Lipranzer, that "scholar of the underlife," and Bonnie Bedelia's, deeply sensitive work as Barbara Sabich, the wife painfully damaged by her husband's infidelity.

Coroner "Painless" Kumagai becomes unforgettable at the hands of Sab Shimono, and Brian Dennehy is Sabich's longtime boss, whose every maneuver has a far-reaching political meaning. (With all the film's technical perfection, however, it's unclear why Dennehy seems to have spray-on spot lifter whitening his hair.)

In what is almost his signature feat ("All the President's Men," "Sophie's Choice"), director Pakula has kept his cast of bravura actors in miraculous balance; none of them is allowed to pull the fabric of the whole out of shape. There is one performance so self-effacing, however, that it may get overlooked among all the high-wire acts: Ford's Rusty Sabich.

Builders would recognize Ford's role for what it is, a bearing beam of a part; one which every other character in the film builds on. Yet--after his roller-coaster affair with Scacchi is launched--most of Ford's time is spent reacting. He must react in the courtroom; react to the story's shocks and surprises and, in the film's crucial scene, his unspoken reaction tells us more clearly than dialogue what Sabich lives by, his guilts, his doubts and his loyalties.

Ford conveys this with the sort of deceptive economy that was part of Henry Fonda's sleight of hand. In fact, more than any other home-grown actor, Ford seems the logical choice to take over Fonda's niche as the decent American, which makes the dimensions of his moral anguish here all the more fascinating. If there are moviegoers who still think that Harrison Ford is most himself in an action role, "Presumed Innocent" (rated R for its nudity, sexuality and language) should go a long way toward clearing up that misconception.

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