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Streamlining `Presumed Innocent'

Turow novel is stripped of interesting ambiguities - with few visual highlights to compensate. FILM: REVIEW

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 30, 1990



NEW YORK

`SPECIAL request to the press,'' reads the message from the studio. ``Please don't reveal the ending. ... Please don't reveal if [the protagonist] is guilty or innocent...'' One can't blame Warner Bros. for wanting to keep the ``who'' in its latest whodunit, ``Presumed Innocent,'' a surprise. But there's a problem here for each side.

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For the studio, it's that the movie follows the same lines as Scott Turow's bestselling novel, which has already revealed the ending (and the beginning, and the middle) to mystery fans everywhere. For us critics, it's that Mr. Turow's novel and Alan J. Pakula's film version raise important issues that can't be discussed without giving away the game, or at least some of it. I'll try to be cagey and reveal as little as possible, but if you want to see the movie with a clear mental slate - always my own preference, by the way - you might want to save this article for afterward.

Turow's novel has much in common with Tom Wolfe's bestseller, ``The Bonfire of the Vanities,'' which director Brian De Palma is now turning into a movie. Both are most interesting in the way they rethink the notion of paranoia as felt by the American privileged classes.

For a long time, novels and films generated shivers by depicting people who become victims of awful crimes. By contrast, Turow and Mr. Wolfe deal with people accused of awful crimes, making them the focus of attention and sympathy. The villain of each story, in a sense, is the social and cultural system - including the police, the courts, the press, and other institutions - that's supposed to protect us from harm, not inflict miseries and injustices of its own.

The main character of ``Presumed Innocent'' is Rusty Sabich, a prosecuting attorney who has gathered much power and prestige during years of professional activity. He appears to be deeply disturbed when one of his colleagues - with whom he was sexually involved - is found brutally raped and murdered in her home. Circumstantial evidence soon makes him a prime suspect in the crime, leading to his indictment and trial for murder.

He works with another high-powered lawyer and with some rough-and-ready police types he's befriended in the attempt to clear himself. More complications arise from the political climate surrouding the case, and from Rusty's intimate link with the murdered woman.

This isn't the most original plot of the year, but it calls for attention in the same way as Wolfe's tale about a Wall Street money manipulator who's pursued by police, courts, and press after allegedly running down a ghetto high-school student with his car. Both novels have been hugely popular; both have attracted the attention of major filmmakers; and both share certain attitudes toward the law, sexual politics, and other important matters.

Most striking is the sense they vividly convey of a legal and criminal-justice system that's not impartial or majesterial but is at the mercy of outside influences as malignant as they are diverse, ranging from shifty evildoers to irresponsible reporters and police officers with mixed motives.

Also striking is the way both stories put beleagured white males at center stage and pin their ultimate moral accusations firmly on women - what some now called the ``Fatal Attraction'' syndrome, after the recent (and monstrous) hit movie.

It remains to be seen how filmmaker De Palma will treat Wolfe's novel, which is penetrating in many of its characterizations (personal and institutional) and makes a number of canny observations despite the air of arrogant superiority that Wolfe adopts in this book as in others.

In reducing ``Presumed Innocent'' to a 126-minute film, director Pakula has necessarily stripped it of many complexities and ambiguities that lend the novel much of its interest. Consider the scene when Rusty is first accused, in a meeting with colleagues, of having committed the murder: Turow shows the development of the meeting (and Rusty's dawning awareness of what's happening) from its ominous start to its nightmarish conclusion, while Pakula merely gives us a straightforward confrontation with a certain rudimentary power but few nuances to involve us deeply.

So it goes throughout the film, with most of Turow's subtleties (such as they are) streamlined away and few touches of visual imagination to compensate for the loss.

The performances are capable, if rarely inspired.

Harrison Ford makes an appropriately stolid Rusty, who has probably relied more on professional skills than on deep-seated creativity in building his law career.

Brian Dennehy is well-cast as his politically ill-fated boss; and Greta Scacchi is ideal as the sexy, ambitious victim who shows up only in photos and flashbacks. But top honors go to Bonnie Bedelia as Rusty's wife, and to Raul Julia, who's so perfect as Rusty's elegant defense attorney that one suspects Turow envisioned him even as the novel was being written.

The cinematography is by Gordon Willis in the dark-toned style he has long favored. John Williams composed the unmemorable music.

The film is rated R, and contains grisly crime descriptions as well as sexual activity and very rough language.