Saturday, 28 April 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Guilty of Sin (Sidney Lumet, 1993)

High on the victory fumes of her latest case, lawyer Jennifer Haines (Rebecca DeMornay) is ready to conquer the world. She takes on a new client, David Greenhill (Don Johnson), a professional ladies man who has been accused of throwing his wife out of their apartment window.

Seeing this case as a test of her talents, Jennifer takes him on as a client. She quickly realises how hubristic this decision is when Greenhill begins to act in bizarre and vaguely threatening ways. Unable to get out of the case, Jennifer becomes Greenhill's unwilling confidant as he confesses his past history of manipulating and killing wealthy women.

Torn between her duty as a legal professional and her monstrous client's real nature, Jennifer has to figure out a way to defeat Greenhill and not wind up going down with him...

Written by b-movie luminary Larry Cohen (Q the Winged Serpent) and directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men), Guilty of Sin is a fun movie that walks a weird line between terrible and great without ever tipping either way.

The big draw is the premise: can a defence attorney sabotage her own case when she knows her client is guilty? There is potential for some great subterfuge and mind games as DeMornay tries to outwit Johnson, but the movie never fulfils its potential.

Which is not to say the movie is not entertaining. Johnson is having a ball as the oily homme fatal, and Cohen's script throws in some entertaining (but increasingly ridiculous) twists that give the movie a certain trashy charm.

My big problem was ultimately how respectable the movie is, for how lurid the story is. Lumet is a great director, but his good taste and unobtrusive style wind up dampening the movie's cheesy elements, leaving the movie feeling a little lifeless. If this movie were directed by someone who could leaned into the movie's more florid sequences, this movie could have been great fun instead of merely watchable.

On the flip side, if the script had been punched up to really hone in on the mental struggle between the main characters, it could have been a great psychological thriller. The movie is filled with potentially great scenes - Greenhill confessing his guilt to Jennifer in the middle of her firm's office building; the sequences of Jennifer solving the murder; Greenhill's frozen reaction as Jennifer's falsified evidence is presented to court, unable to do anything without implicating himself; Greenhill's fiery confrontation with Jennifer's detective (Harry Warden). These scenes never come off quite right - either because the script is not as smart as it thinks it is, or because Lumet doesn't give it some flair.

As far as the acting goes, it's Johnson's show. Completely self-involved and arrogant, he knows exactly what kind of movie he is in. While he is believable as ladykiller (in both ways), there is a sense of weakness to his performance that was really compelling. There is something almost... Trumpian to the way he folds whenever he is caught out, which makes him more interesting than just a one-dimensional villain. Greenhill's only power is the psycho-sexual hold he has over women - without that he literally has nothing.

I wish the script had done more to develop his character - it often feels like Johnson is doing more of the heavy lifting to make his scheming feel even vaguely credible.

As the ostensible lead, DeMornay is a wash. There is a  stiffness and lack of charisma to her performance that undermines the character. Partially this is the result of a script that keeps undermining her intelligence and mental toughness at every turn, but DeMornay's performance is not strong enough to cover these deficits.

I would like to say that this is one of those movies that could use a remake, but this type of court-based erotic thriller is not exactly the stuff of multiplexes nowadays. Like the last movie I reviewed, Guilty of Sin feels rooted in particular time and place.

Overall, there is a lot of stuff that does not work about Guilty as Sin, but if you take it as a weekend time-waster, you won't be disappointed.

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