The book and movie entertainment world can muster quite a list of courtroom dramas. Professor Wikipedia testifies that a “trial film’ is a subgenre of the legal-courtroom drama that encompasses films that are centered on a civil or criminal trial, typically a trial by jury.” Such a list would take up this whole essay. Kill a Mockingbird to Perry Mason. One very early example is M, a 1931 German thriller directed by Fritz Lang. Various legal organizations have organized top 10 courtroom books and films (see link below.) Somehow, in the action-packed world of books, TV and movies, short attention spans and chock full of CGI, plodding, chess-like, courtroom stories still hold a candle. One such important book was Presumed Innocent, first a book in 1987 by Scott Turow, then a movie in 1990.
“I would think it’s fair to say that with ‘Presumed Innocent,’ he’s (Turow) the one who set the bar for courtroom thrillers and everyone else who has come since has to match up against him,” J.B. Dickey, owner of Seattle Mystery Bookshop told the San Diego Tribune. It did reboot a flurry of such books and movies. But…still…not on the official coveted top book and movie courtroom drama lists?
Scott Turow’s first novel was “Presumed Innocent,” published in August 1987. It is about a prosecutor charged with the murder of his colleague, an attractive and intelligent prosecutor named Carolyn Polhemus. It is told in the first person by the accused, Rožat “Rusty” Sabich. Reducing the story to this one line like this hardly gives the twists, turns and ironies in the book…justice.
Peter Travers of the Rolling Stone reported “When a mystery novel really grips us, as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent did in 1987, the inevitable movie version rarely turns out the way we imagined. Turow, a successful Chicago lawyer, crafted a first novel that was equal parts whodunit, courtroom drama, warped love story and insightful take on the limits of the legal system… should appreciate a smart, passionate, steadily engrossing thriller,”
Scott Turow has written 11 fiction and three nonfiction books, which have been translated into more than 40 languages and sold more than 30 million copies. Films have been based on several of his books. Turow the author should know this world. He became an Assistant US Attorney prosecuting high-profile corruption cases. After leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1987, Turow became a novelist. Of Presumed Innocent, Rochelle Siegal of the Chicago Tribune reported that “Turow wrote this potboiler while riding the commuter train each day to Chicago, where he worked as an assistant U.S. attorney. The writing spanned eight years.”
The eventual murder mystery movie in 1990…killed! With a budget of $20 million, the box office hit about $222 million. Almost all critics and viewers loved it or at least liked it. Harrison Ford as Rusty. Bonnie Bedelia as his wife. Brain Dennehy as the D.A. Raul Julia as Rusty’s lawyer. A terrific supporting cast and production that was always “in the pocket.” Turow was happy with the movie, ”I never literally visualized the characters when I wrote them, but Harrison and Brian Dennehy and Raul Julia were magnificent.”
Presumed Innocent hasn’t made many top ten courtroom-trial-drama lists but it certainly lands in my top 5, maybe even numero uno. Turow knew his way around the personalities of the legal world. I have just a bit too. I’d been a military police investigator and a Texas police detective for 7 years in 1987 when I read the book, and was quite blended to the world of criminals, investigators, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, trials, politics and…unusual, personal lives. So the book and movie was a deeper fish hook for me. The book I consumed in 1987. The audio book consumed in 1988. With ten years on the job I’d watched the movie in 1990. The film was and still is an insider, extra “gripper” for me. I was drawn in, hypnotized.
Watch the movie trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rG9tMQK3hcU
A terrific article on the writers mind of Turow, years later:https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-lasting-influence-of-scott-turows-presumed-innocent/
The Turow biography: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Scott-Turow
Courtroom-trial movie lists: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trial_film
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