Presume “Guilty”

Presumed InnocentLast night, I watched Presumed Innocent. I hadn’t seen it in many years and I was pleasantly surprised. What I most remembered was that it was a very dark film, and so when the credits displayed “Cinematography: Gordon Willis” I was not surprised. What most people don’t understand is that video always has a higher contrast than video. So when you are watching a projected film, you can see great detail in even the darkest areas of the image. When this is transferred to video and displayed on a TV, most if not all of that detail goes away. Willis is a cinematographer who gives no thought to the fact that most people will watch his work on video and not film. Even though this bothers me, I can’t help but be impressed by his commitment. And even on video, his films still do look great and unmistakable.

What is most remarkable about the film is Harrison Ford in the lead role of Rusty Sabich. He is swallowed up by the actors around him. I know that the character is a hard one. He plays things very close to the vest. But Ford almost disappears in scenes with Raul Julia and Brian Dennehy. He is at his best in scenes with Bonnie Bedelia, where they seem to have a real connection. Of course, this is utterly counter to pretty much everything Scott Turow has ever written which can be reduced to a single sentence: women are unknowable. So it would have been better if they didn’t look so good together. I think the film would have been better with a great actor in the lead role, but I can’t think of who that might have been.

Novels—good ones anyway—are not preachy. Movies, being a melodramatic art form, often work better when they get in your face. And Presumed Innocent definitely gets in your face. It ends with a stunning voice-over with a shot of an empty courtroom:

I am a prosecutor. I have spent my life in the assignment of blame. With all deliberation and intent, I reached for Carolyn. I cannot pretend it was an accident. I reached for Carolyn, and set off that insane mix of rage and lunacy that led one human being to kill another. There was a crime. There was a victim. And there is punishment.

He is saying that even though he didn’t kill Carolyn Polhemus, his decision to have an affair with her started a process than ended in her murder. It is an “I am my brother’s keeper” moment. And it is very compelling to me. My experiences through these many decades have shown me that those we term guilty are not as guilty as we would believe, nor are the innocent free of guilt.

I cannot bear to be around people who consider themselves even mostly good or innocent, because they are neither; they are just fools.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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