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PRESUMED INNOCENT – John Williams

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Presumed Innocent is a terrific courtroom thriller of the type they just don’t make any more. Directed by Alan J. Pakula and written by Scott Turow, based on his own 1987 novel of the same name, it stars Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich, a high-profile prosecutor working for the current district attorney, Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy). Rusty’s life is turned upside town when a former colleague, Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), is found raped and murdered in her apartment; to make matters worse for Rusty, he previously had a brief affair with Carolyn, which resulted in domestic problems between Rusty and his wife Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia). The DA’s political rival, Nico Della Guardia, uses circumstantial evidence found at the crime scene to accuse Rusty of the murder, and soon Rusty is fighting not only to clear his name, but to identify the real killer. Presumed Innocent is one of the most entertaining and intelligent movies of its type, and one of my personal favorite courtroom thrillers; great films like this used to come out every year, from authors like Turow and John Grisham, but the over-saturation of TV shows in the Law and Order franchise have somewhat lessened their impact and public interest has waned in the genre as a whole. It’s a shame because I always loved them when they were done well, and this one is one of the best.

The score for Presumed Innocent is by John Williams, and was the only career collaboration between him and director Pakula; most of Pakula’s prior films were scored by people like David Shire (All the President’s Men), Marvin Hamlisch (Sophie’s Choice), and especially Michael Small (Klute, The Parallax View, Consenting Adults), before he moved on to working with James Horner on The Pelican Brief and The Devil’s Own. At the time Williams himself didn’t have much experience of writing music for courtroom thrillers either, so Presumed Innocent offers a rare opportunity to experience Williams’s approach to writing music for a film which required no action, no sweeping love themes, and no brassy fanfare marches or main titles.

The approach Williams ultimately took was to create a dour, oppressive mood with a score for a limited orchestral palette comprising mostly strings and piano and a solo horn, with just a few woodwinds here and there, all augmented by unusually prominent keyboards. The music is suspenseful and atmospheric throughout, and usually quite understated, only really rising to make its voice heard and its presence felt during heightened moments of emotion or revelation. Everything is anchored around the excellent main theme, which is introduced in and plays throughout the main title, “Presumed Innocent”. The theme builds out from a repetitive theme for piano in two parts; it is initially arranged as a 14-note A-Phrase in four clusters – 3, 3, 4, 4 – and then becomes a more elaborate B-Phrase, expounding on the initial motif with grace and elegance. As it develops it picks up warm horn accents, echoes from the electronics, shifts across to the strings, and becomes more dramatic and intense, with especially notable synth timpanis pounding away in the lower end of the sonic range. It’s in the same wheelhouse as scores like Sleepers, Angela’s Ashes, parts of JFK, and parts of Nixon, and suits the tone of the film perfectly.

Several subsequent cues feature the theme prominently. “Remembering Carolyn” sees the theme tinged with regret and sadness, with a prominent harp part alongside the main complement of instruments. Both “Love Scene” and “Carolyn’s Office” inject the theme into cues which again use harps and slightly dream-like electronic tonalities, creating a mood which is both intimate and a little anxious; Rusty and Carolyn’s sexual relationship was… shall we say… a little different from the norm, and Williams goes a little way to exploring that slight twist with uneasy-sounding music that, in some ways, could be seen as a little bit of a precursor to Jerry Goldsmith’s Basic Instinct.

Later, “The B File” has a sheen of glassy dispassionateness that comes from the increased electronic content. “The Bedroom Scene” makes the theme sound very troubled, and makes the score’s rare use of woodwinds – in this case oboes – speak to that lurking mistrust under the outward portrait of familial harmony. “Rusty Accused” has a haunted quality, where woodwinds combine with piano and synths and surging strings to underscore this dramatic, devastating revelation.

Other cues of note include “Family Life,” a piece of pretty suburban idyll that represents Rusty and the extended Sabich family before the sordid tales of death and sex and infidelity and murder come in to ruin everything; it has a similar sound to scores like The Accidental Tourist and Stanley & Iris, light and whimsical. Similarly, “Case Dismissed” is a piece of warm brass-led Americana that allows a brief moment of relief and catharsis to emerge as the facts reveal Rusty’s fate.

However, large parts of the score, when it is not directly quoting the main theme or one of its variations, is very understated and unassuming, and may come across as a little boring to those who aren’t attuned to Williams at his most unobtrusive. The thing about courtroom thrillers is that they are, for the most part, all about dialogue and detail, and as such it is absolutely necessary for the music to ‘stay out of the way’ when important pieces of plot are being dropped, or moments of revelation aired. It’s difficult to write music that is discreet by design, effective in context, but also interesting enough to want to listen to on its own merits. Whether one finds Williams’s piano noodles and elongated string sustains ‘interesting to listen to’ is a matter of personal taste; personally, I do find them interesting, but anyone who listens to Williams for action music bombast and his juggernaut thematic content is likely to be left unsatisfied by large parts of this score.

The conclusion of the film – which contains one of the most brilliant twists in a movie of this kind in the last 30 years – allows Williams to do some really interesting things to his themes. By the time the identity of the killer is revealed, Williams has stripped away entirely the veneer of domestic bliss from his theme, and has instead washed it theme in off-key chord progressions, dark string variations on the key melodic ideas, and added layers of chattering percussive sounds and abstract electronica to fully emphasize the nature of the betrayal. Both “The Basement Scene” and “Barbara’s Confession” are dramatically heightened, especially by the music that comes via the strings, and by the time the “End Credits” reprises the main theme, Williams has added more ostentatious electronic embellishments, tubular bells, and stark string chords to the central piano motif, ensuring the viewer and listener knows that – even though the case has been solved and the identity of the murderer revealed – life for the Sabich family will never be the same again.

The score for Presumed Innocent was released by Varese Sarabande around the same time the film came out, and is still fairly widely available, both as a physical product and as a digital download/stream. While its true that the score is never going to have as many fans, or leave as much of an impact, as his most famous works, it nevertheless offers an interesting and different side to John Williams that scholars of his entire filmography would do well to investigate. The main theme is genuinely superb, the self-limited sound palette he adopts is a fascinating exercise in restraint and nuance, and the clever manipulation of the thematic ideas in the body of the score shows Williams’s intelligence and understanding of the film’s narrative requirements. Overall, Presumed Innocent is quiet, but compelling.

Buy the Presumed Innocent soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Presumed Innocent (4:10)
  • Remembering Carolyn (2:17)
  • Family Life (1:30)
  • Love Scene (4:06)
  • The B File (3:28)
  • The Bedroom Scene (4:20)
  • Carolyn’s Office (3:24)
  • Leon Talks (1:59)
  • Rusty Accused (2:07)
  • Case Dismissed (1:53)
  • The Boat Scene (2:15)
  • The Basement Scene (2:55)
  • Barbara’s Confession (5:17)
  • End Credits (4:03)

Running Time: 43 minutes 53 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5280 (1990)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by John Neufeld and Herbert W. Spencer. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Album produced by John Williams.

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