It takes too long for the courtroom thriller “Guilty as Sin” to heat up and engage an audience. Despite some intriguing plot twists and a visceral wind-up, Sidney Lumet’s study of a war of wills is of limited B.O. interest.
The prolific director scored his last hit more than a decade ago with “The Verdict,” and there are elements here (primarily Andrzej Bartkowiak’s moody lighting and Jack Warden in a similar supporting role) that conjure up memories of that superior Paul Newman starrer.
“The Verdict” dealt seriously with ethical issues, but in “Guilty” Larry Cohen’s script perversely spotlights an arch-villain who manipulates legal gimmicks in tried-and-true B movie fashion.
Don Johnson is effectively cast as the literal ladykiller, who’s just been accused of throwing his rich wife out a high-rise window. Like a stalker, he’s become fixated on hotshot criminal lawyer Rebecca De Mornay and uses reverse psychology to get her to take his case.
Johnson’s upfront sexism and smug role reversal as a narcissistic gigolo generate comic relief and unintentional risibility in equal measure. It’s a testament to his personality and good looks that he pulls off such a tricky role , but ultimately it’s a skin-deep performance.
Returning to Hollywood Pictures, where her most recent film, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” was a runaway hit, Rebecca De Mornay gets top billing but is saddled with a functional, reactive part. Viewer is immediately intrigued with Johnson’s showy character and has to wait four or five reels for De Mornay to wake up and go to battle with him in earnest.
Early on De Mornay becomes convinced that Johnson is manipulating her and is really guilty of the crime. However, judge Dana Ivey forces her to continue her client’s defense, locking De Mornay into an untenable situation.
Soon fearing for her very life when it becomes apparent that Johnson’s killing spree is open-ended, De Mornay has her detective Jack Warden gather evidence against Johnson for his previous unsolved murders. She can’t use it because of her client confidentiality, so instead, in Cohen’s most questionable plot ploy, she meticulously plants evidence incriminating Johnson in the current case.
He figures out what she’s up to and produces a surprise alibi, a previously undisclosed lady friend who happens to be married to a linebacker for the Chicago Bears.
Gory climax locks the stars in a frightening dance of death that gives “Guilty as Sin” its only commercial zing. Like the monster sometimes added to an atmospheric Val Lewton RKO thriller of the ’40s, finale seems imposed on an otherwise tasteful and bloodless exercise.
Bartkowiak’s compositions and lighting add menace to the urban locations, lensed in Canada as a convincing double for Chicago settings. Combination of very little physical action, deliberate pacing, tons of dialogue and an exceedingly spare score by Howard Shore make the film too low-key.
Johnson is at his best oozing oily charm but muffs a dramatic freakout scene midway through the picture. De Mornay does little more than keep a straight face no matter how far-fetched the proceedings become.
Film is almost a two-hander, with supporting cast led by Warden and De Mornay’s boyfriend Stephen Lang literally (and sometimes comically) expendable.