Slow Burner PRESUMED INNOCENT

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The law according to Scott Turow is pretty much as we imagine it in our worst-case scenarios, which are, of course, essentially indistinguishable from our paranoid nightmares. The itchy authenticity with which he showed how even an expert in the legal system can be caught up in one of its patented narratives of false accusation made his novel Presumed Innocent a best seller.

The book is also the kind of material Alan J. Pakula was put on earth to direct. Klute, The Parallax View and All the President's Men are all marvelously intricate visions in which otherwise quite knowing individuals are slowly forced to the awareness that they are being victimized -- no, terrorized -- by other people's unscrupulous rage to maintain respectable order at any cost. Yet conscientiously as this movie has been made, it does not work as well as the novel did or as some of Pakula's other films have.

Conscientiousness may, indeed, be part of the problem. In converting the story of Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford), a public prosecutor forced by circumstantial evidence and local political imperatives to stand trial for the murder of Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), an upper-slutty colleague, Pakula seems overawed by the book's critical and popular success. Whatever its other virtues, Presumed Innocent was basically a page turner; the movie is a slow burner.

The burnished glow of the cinematography imparts a portentous, not to say pretentious, air to the halls of justice where much of the film's most significant action occurs. The scruffy atmosphere of the book, the sense of lively, crooked, occasionally desperate human scurryings along marbled halls that have not been cleaned in years, and are probably lined by spittoons, is lost in the film's elegant shadows.

The filmmakers also fail to cure the central defect of the novel's plotting. Carolyn's murderer has an excellent motive both for killing her and for making sure Sabich, Carolyn's sometime lover, is accused of the crime. Sabich is like the traditional Hitchcock hero: not guilty of the crime he is accused of but guilty of other moral malfeasance. But it is hard to accept the possibility that the real perpetrator would leave his escape from the trap entirely to chance.

It is equally hard to understand Ford's owlish performance as Sabich. He is supposed to be a smart, aggressive lawyer, tops at his trade. But Ford is mostly dull and inward looking, at best cranky where he should be vigorous and resourceful. There are some excellent things in Presumed Innocent: Scacchi's erotic heat as she lures Sabich into adultery; Paul Winfield's sardonic knowingness as he presides over Sabich's trial; Brian Dennehy's deadly impassivity as he betrays a friend to protect his career. Each anatomizes a subspecies of the political animal with finely observed accuracy. Each gives a lift to the movie, but not enough to overcome its drag and get it airborne.