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Case Number 00933

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Presumed Innocent

Warner Bros. // 1990 // 127 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // February 20th, 2001

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All Rise...

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Harrison Ford used to be more concerned with the quality of his roles than his paycheck. Here's an example of his work during those glory days. Read Judge Nicholas Sylvain's analysis of this legal potboiler.

The Charge

Attraction. Desire. Deception. Murder. No one is ever completely innocent.

Opening Statement

Passion and calculation collide as an act of adultery leads to gruesome murder, leaving one man, sworn to uphold the law, himself accused. Presumed Innocent is a gritty and realistic look at the criminal justice system that is as much a meditation on crime and punishment as it is a compelling who-done-it/courtroom drama. Sadly, this disc from Warner is deficient, lacking both an anamorphic transfer and all but the most minimal of extra content.

Facts of the Case

I am a prosecutor.

I'm a part of the business of accusing, judging, and punishing.

I explore the evidence of a crime and determine who is charged, who is brought to this room, to be tried before his peers.

I present my evidence to the jury, and they deliberate upon it. They must determine what really happened.

If they cannot, we will not know if the accused deserves to be freed or should be punished. If they cannot, what is our hope of justice?

-- Rusty Sabich

Chief Deputy District Attorney Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) is a straight-shooting, hard-working career prosecutor totally dedicated to his profession. When he comes across Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), a deputy D.A. who is as calculating and ambitious as she is stunningly beautiful, his life is forever changed. His deeply passionate affair with her takes a nasty turn when Carolyn is found tied up, beaten to death, and sexually assaulted. With his boss, D.A. Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy), locked in a bitter re-election fight with former Deputy D.A. Nico Della Guardia (Tom Mardirosian), and a politically explosive murder case on hand, the task of leading the investigation falls to Rusty Sabich.

Circumstantial evidence, including hair, fibers, and a fingerprint, is slow to come to light. When it does, Rusty Sabich finds that the tables have turned, and now he must defend himself against the very charge he had been investigating. Suave and deadly precise, attorney Sandy Stern (Raul Julia) is hired as Sandy's defense attorney. Aided on the sly by a devoted cop, Detective Lipranzer (John Spencer), the defense team turns up intriguing leads and occasional possibilities, but still the case against Rusty remains formidable.

As the trial begins, surprises abound, both in and out of the courtroom. The trial judge, Larren Lyttle (Paul Winfield), Raymond Horgan, and many other principals all have their own secrets, including Rusty Sabich himself. In the end, Rusty finds that justice and punishment come in many forms and that small sins can create terrible, unpredictable consequences.

The Evidence

Courtroom dramas have been a staple of television and movies practically since the mediums were invented. However, the vast, vast majority of these shows and films bear only passing resemblance to the reality of the American justice system. I can understand making changes or simplifying matters for the sake of dramatic power or clarity, but too often it seems that these fictional short-cuts are made simply because it is easier to do so. Being a daily participant in the prosecution of criminal cases, I deeply appreciate the rare gem which accurately gives the viewer a true sense of the justice system, from the police, lawyers and judges, to the rules and procedures of a criminal case, to the real nuts and bolts of a trial.

Presumed Innocent achieves this feat, and all without sacrificing the inexorable dramatic power of the film. Director and co-screenwriter Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men, Sophie's Choice, The Pelican Brief) wisely confronts us with the terrible murder at the very start, and only unfold Sabich's obsessive affair through strategic flashbacks. As the audience sees the story primarily through Rusty Sabich, we think he is innocent. His wounded outrage is convincing, but so is the depth of his obsession with his mistress and his potential reaction once spurned by her. We never quite know the truth until the very end.

The cast of actors is well stocked with talent. Brian Dennehy (Silverado, F/X, Romeo + Juliet) shines as Raymond Horgan, an old-school Irish politician with a loose sense of morals and ability to hold a bitter grudge. Raul Julia (Kiss Of the Spider Woman, Moon Over Parador, The Addams Family) is at the top of his game as Sandy Stern, giving this defense attorney a gloriously smooth physical and verbal delivery, with a perfect sense of grace, style and honesty. Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard, Needful Things) is solid as Rusty's wounded, wronged wife, and Paul Winfield (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, The Terminator, Mars Attacks!) is a pleasure as wise, dryly funny Judge Larren Lyttle.

Honorable mention goes to John Spencer (Wargames, "L.A. Law," "The West Wing") as über-loyal Det. Lipranzer, and Joe Grifasi (F/X, Natural Born Killers), whose sliminess is a delight to behold. Certainly, Greta Scacchi (The Player, Jefferson in Paris) is similarly worthy of note by pulling off a convincing portrayal as a woman who is strong, aggressively sexual, and oh-so ambitious.

In his post-Han Solo career, Harrison Ford (American Graffiti, Frantic, Air Force One) has done quite well for himself playing decent, solid men who are forced into extraordinary situations. We are predisposed to accept the fundamental decency of his characters, even though they can have quite terrible flaws (such as Rusty Sabich's infidelity), thanks to Harrison Ford's acting skill. Crucial to sustaining the tension of Presumed Innocent, he keeps Rusty sympathetic yet still so flawed with obsession that his innocence is in doubt.

The slow, methodical pacing may cause Presumed Innocent to drag for some, but perhaps paradoxically that is some of its charm. Presumed Innocent takes the time to lay out the story, the characters, and their motivations and secrets, without needing to rush things along or segue from car chase to forced drama to sex scene. If you get into the story, the slower pacing should not be much of a concern.

The letterboxed video transfer is mediocre. The picture is moderately "noisy" and lightly sprinkled with assorted bits of dirt and film defects. Sharpness is average, tending to softness, and lines shimmering with digital enhancement pop up frequently. Color saturation is good and the blacks are solid. Certainly better than videotape, but far less than the best that DVD has to offer.

The Dolby Surround audio track is decent but otherwise unremarkable. The front soundstage tends to be more center oriented and not very deep, as you might expect from this dialogue-heavy sort of drama. Otherwise, the dialogue is clear and mixed in well, so that even the quiet whispers are heard, and the mood-enhancing music is adequately reproduced. Rear surrounds are used for modest ambient fill and your subwoofer will have little to do.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Warner was indeed an early supporter of the DVD format, but that did not mean they produced technically proficient discs that took full advantage of the new format. Presumed Innocent is perhaps typical of an early Warner release, with a probable direct port of the letterboxed laserdisc transfer and only a theatrical trailer with some production notes as extras. I suppose I should be thankful that Presumed Innocent was not consigned to DVD hell as a Warner "budget line" disc with only a hack and slash video transfer and zero extras.

Closing Statement

A finely dramatic story with strong actors, Presumed Innocent is a worthy film for your time and your collection. Though the absent extras are cause for severe criticism, the price ($20 list) and quality of the film itself are enough for me.

The Verdict

The Court finds that the Defendant movie is worthy only of praise, not prosecution. Warner, on the other hand, is again found to be in contempt of the audience for its featureless releases.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 72
Audio: 76
Extras: 15
Acting: 97
Story: 90
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Theatrical Trailer
• Production Notes


• IMDb

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Review content copyright © 2001 Nicholas Sylvain; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.