Thirty years ago, there was perhaps no bigger movie star in the world than Harrison Ford. Catapulted to fame and fortune by the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, Ford spent the latter half of the 1980s delivering more subtle, but no-less-charismatic, performances in movies like Witness, Frantic, and Working Girl. The success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in the summer of 1989 simply cemented his enduring popularity. When audiences saw Harrison Ford’s face on a movie poster, they bought a ticket. Under such favorable circumstances, it’s easy to see why Presumed Innocent became the eighth highest-grossing film of the year after its wide release on July 27, 1990.
Less clear is what has happened between then and now. While Ford’s other 1990s thrillers (including Air Force One, Patriot Games,and Clear and Present Danger) have remained extremely popular, Presumed Innocent seems to have been lost to the sands of cinematic time. It is rarely mentioned in retrospective articles about Ford’s career, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find it on any top 10 list focused on Ford’s filmography. This certainly cannot be attributed to its lack of quality. On the contrary, contemporary critics were highly impressed by the film, and it currently holds an score of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. How can we account for its almost complete absence from the popular consciousness on its 30th anniversary?
At first glance, Presumed Innocent may appear quite similar to another Harrison Ford film, the celebrated 1993 thriller The Fugitive. The setups are essentially the same: a respected professional is accused of a heinous murder and must fight to prove his innocence and find the real killer. In both films, Ford’s protagonist finds himself surrounded by many characters who believe his innocence, as well as some who are convinced of his guilt. But Dr. Richard Kimble, the titular Fugitive, chooses to fight for his freedom while on the run from federal agents. In contrast, prosecutor Rusty Sabich (the protagonist of Presumed Innocent) has no choice but to pursue truth and justice in a court of law. He’s smart, but he’s no heart surgeon. He’s desperate, but he doesn’t try to evade the police. He doesn’t disappear into a parade crowd or jump into a raging dam or confront the real murderer at some public event in the most dramatic fashion. He doesn’t even give any big climactic speech at his own trial. He must rely on others, primarily his defense attorney and a sympathetic detective, to secure his freedom.
Perhaps it is this relative lack of agency that has caused audiences to forget Ford’s role as Rusty Sabich. Whereas Indiana Jones and Dr. Richard Kimble and Jack Ryan are men of action, who take matters into their own hands, Sabich is a quieter kind of character; less forceful, but certainly more conflicted. Ford’s swaggering confidence, ever-present in other roles, is chiseled away almost immediately in this film, and we are left with a tortured, anxious, and often befuddled central character. I would argue, however, that those moments when Sabich is at his most desperate or anguished reveal Ford’s true strengths as an actor. He’s quiet and scared and flustered because the role demands it, and because there’s an honesty in such a portrayal. Ford is playing a man on trial for the murder of someone close to him, caught up in a horrible situation that threatens to tear his family apart. Of course he’s scared and confused. Nobody could be calm and collected under such circumstances, not even Han Solo. In the case of Presumed Innocent, it is Ford’s honest distress that makes him so compelling.
But there is a darkness in this film that Ford’s other thrillers rarely match, both literally and figuratively. The cinematographer was Gordon Willis, well-known for his willingness to bathe scenes in darkness and shadow, as demonstrated in movies like The Godfather. The director, meanwhile, was Alan J. Pakula, famous for films like Klute, All the President’s Men, and Sophie’s Choice, films unafraid to confront or expose the potential for evil or cruelty or criminality lurking within all of us. We recognize that the potential for evil exists within Rusty Sabich as well. In the opening scenes of Presumed Innocent, it is established that Rusty had an affair with fellow prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus, and throughout the film it is revealed that even after reconciling with his wife, his obsession with Polhemus continued. Even as we root for his acquittal (after all, this is Harrison Ford we’re talking about), we can’t shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, Sabich really did have something to do with Polhemus’ murder. The horrific crime scene photos and constant reminders of the nature of Polhemus’ injuries don’t help his case. This is a film that lingers on the lurid details, and the mystery contained in those details will keep you guessing until the shocking finale.
Alongside Ford, a brilliant cast of actors fill the supporting roles. Brian Dennehy, famous for his performances in stage productions of Shakespeare’s and Eugene O’Neill’s works, plays an antagonistic district attorney who demands loyalty from his prosecutors but will offer no loyalty in return. Raul Julia is certainly memorable as the defense attorney who may or may not believe Rusty’s innocence. Greta Scacchi is dynamite as Rusty’s coworker and former lover, the tragic victim at the center of the film’s mystery. Most impressive of all is Bonnie Bedelia as Rusty’s wife Barbara. Two years removed from her role as Holly McClane in Die Hard, Bedelia delivers a cleverly low-key performance as a woman haunted by her husband’s infidelity, desperate to keep their family together for the sake of their young son, and silently harboring ambitions of her own. Such incredible costars make Ford’s job as the leading man a lot easier.
Why didn’t this filmbecome another Harrison Ford classic? The incredible success of another early ‘90s thriller might have had something to do with that. The Silence of the Lambs premiered six months after Presumed Innocent, and its shocking mix of violence, psychologically complex characters and dialogue, and tour de force performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins helped propel it to box office success and five Academy Awards. Compared to the ferocious intensity of Lambs, Presumed Innocent seems like a very understated, even tame, crime drama. Perhaps, to audiences of the time, it simply seemed outdated in the wake of Lambs’ success. It wouldn’t be the first time that one impressive film suddenly rendered all of the predecessors in its genre obsolete. Nevertheless, I hope today’s audiences will give Presumed Innocent a second chance after three decades. It may not be Ford’s most glamorous movie, nor his most exciting, but it showcases his quieter strengths as an actor, and its ending packs a powerful punch.
Presumed Innocent is now streaming on HBO Max.