Written by Larry Cohen
Considering Larry Cohen’s ability to coax strong performances out of his casts at the same time that he embraced the absurdity of his often ridiculous, lurid plots, it’s not a surprise that his scripts, when directed by others, would result in the occasional bad movie. That Sidney Lumet, one of the greatest American filmmakers of the twentieth century would be interested in Guilty as Sin, one of Cohen’s goofy, twisty thriller scripts is surprising. That he was unable to get a handle on the tone and directed a train wreck of a film, sadly, is not surprising.
Jennifer Haines (Rebecca De Mornay) is a sought after defense attorney with a powerful Chicago law firm. When the film opens, she is methodically ripping apart the prosecution’s extortion case against her mob defendant. Despite the fact that she knows she’s representing a man who is guilty of any number of crimes, she never bats an eye as she helps set him free. Watching the trial with amusement is David Greenhill (Don Johnson).
Five minutes after David introduces himself to Jennifer (by casually strolling into her office, unnannounced), it becomes obvious that he is a sociopath. It seems that David is a suspect in the death of his wife and he wants Jennifer to represent him. David claims that his wife committed suicide, but made it to look as though he threw her out the window of their eighteenth floor condo. To make matters worse, David is a relentless ladies man, freely admitting to marrying his wife for her money and cheating on her at every opportunity. Against her better judgment, Jennifer takes him on as a client.
But it doesn’t take long for her to regret her decision. David makes numerous comments on her beauty, pays a threatening visit to her boyfriend, Phil (a woefully miscast Stephen Lang sporting a cheesy mustache and perm), and tries his best to make it appear to Jennifer’s friends and bosses that they’re having an affair. By the time Jennifer finally comes to the obvious conclusion that David did indeed murder his wife, the Judge (Dana Ivey) presiding over his trial bars her from dropping him as a client.
Legally bound to defend David to the best of her abilities and not divulge his many incriminating statements to the prosecution, Jennifer sets into motion a cat-and-mouse game that will allow her to rid the world of David without being disbarred. To do so, she employs a crusty old private investigator named Moe (Jack Warden) to dig into David’s past. When he finds evidence of other possible murders, Jennifer finally begins to fear for her life (long past the point when any other rational person would have) and takes drastic measures that aren’t strictly legal.
With Guilty as Sin, Lumet and Cohen are working both in and out of their comfort zones. Having spent half of his career directing police procedurals and courtroom dramas, the plot obviously appealed to Lumet’s tastes. With a trashy murder mystery that is twist after twist (some of them effective, but most of them insane) and a leading man who is smarmy and infinitely more interesting than any other character in the film, Cohen’s fingerprints are evident on the finished product. But why did they feel the need to set the film in Chicago? Both men have benefitted greatly in the past from mining the atmosphere of New York City streets that they know so well. Not only does Lumet fail to do anything to capture the flavor of Chicago (most of the film is set indoors–these scenes were shot in Toronto), but Cohen’s script mangles the way Chicagoan’s talk (forcing characters to refer to the Trib as “The Chicago Trib” and the Bears as “The Chicago Bears”, really annoyed me–these people are supposed to be natives of the city), while name dropping obvious Chicago landmarks (The Water Tower, University of Chicago) to prove that a few seconds of research went into choosing the city. There’s nothing about this film that made it mandatory to set it in Chicago. If Lumet and Cohen had stuck with New York, it probably would have still been a bad film, but at least it would have felt a little more authentic.
Beyond my complaints about failing to fully utilize my favorite American city, Guilty as Sin is a complete mess.
I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that the script has serious absurdity problems, so let’s start with the performances. Normally, I don’t like to heap criticism on an actor. It’s a difficult job to let down your guard and allow a camera to capture your every move, look, and gesture for posterity. It actually does take a measure of courage to act, so I usually look the other way when it comes to a bad performance. But De Mornay’s work in the film is nothing short of stupefying. I never once understood most of Jennifer’s actions. Some of this blame belongs to Lumet and Cohen, but a lot of it goes to De Mornay. Trapped in a state of wide-eyed incredulity, she takes Jennifer from being a smart, take-charge woman to an idiotic slasher movie bimbo in record time. At every turn, she seems shocked that David could be as evil as he is–never mind that he practically seems eager to confess the nature of his murderous deeds from the second he meets her. As each telegraphed twist and shock is revealed, De Mornay meets it with such over-the-top, melodramatic stares and gasps that it’s hard to root for her character against David. It’s not that Johnson gives a particularly good performance, but he at least seems to understand the absurdity of the story and has some fun chewing the scenery. In the meantime, normally reliable character actors like Lang, Warden, Ivey, and Luis Guzmán phone in dreary, lifeless performances that fail to add any texture to the flat atmosphere.
But as disappointing as the cast and Cohen’s script are, there is no getting around the fact that Lumet never seemed to understand what kind of film he was making. While the script is one gratuitous sex scene away from being a particularly ridiculous entry into the early ‘90s erotic thriller canon, Lumet does his damnedest to turn it into one of his tasteful courtroom thrillers. This leads to scene after interminable scene of witnesses and experts talking about the details of the murder. If the characters providing the testimonies were more interesting, or if they had more entertaining dialogue, perhaps I wouldn’t have needed to fight so hard to stay awake. Unfortunately, there’s no intrigue or suspense to these scenes. There’s never a sense that what these characters have to say is important because it’s obvious almost at once that David is guilty. The suspense should come from determining how he plans to go after Jennifer and how she plans to turn the tables on him. Granted, this is pulpy material, but it’s far more interesting than the story Lumet seems to be interested in.
I understand that Lumet was probably intrigued by the idea of exploring what happens when a lawyer’s ethics and morality are in direct conflict. That is an interesting theme that’s worth exploring. But he tries to hang the “is he or isn’t he a killer” plot on that theme instead of using the cat-and-mouse game between Jennifer and David. Simply put, he chose the wrong angle to focus on and the entire film collapsed because of that choice. It honestly pains me to be so blunt in my criticism of Lumet so soon after his death, but I’ve sung his praises so many times in the past, it would be hypocritical of me to turn a blind eye to his mistakes on this film.
But Cohen doesn’t get a free pass, either.
Even if Cohen had directed this film, I doubt it would have worked. The main reason is that the cat-and-mouse game that I feel should have been the focus of the film is poorly developed. Only once does Jennifer seem to gain the upper hand on David, but he quickly turns the tables on her and remains several steps ahead of her for the rest of the film. This leads to a redundancy in the film as scene after scene in the second and third act feels like a slight variation on a scene that happened just five minutes previous. This also leads to a selling out of Jennifer’s character. She’s supposed to be as smart as they come, but she’s quickly reduced to a quivering little girl incapable of making a decision. This impression is furthered by De Mornay’s disastrous performance.
There is also something slightly sexist about the way Jennifer is presented. There is the ever-present idea that a woman can’t be successful in her career and have a happy personal life. But there is also the subtext that no matter how strong or powerful the woman, they can be manipulated by a handsome man with a great smile. Part of the reason that Jennifer takes David on as a client is that she is attracted to him. This is never stated, but it’s strongly implied. This idea that a high-powered attorney would risk her life and career because a murder suspect is handsome never works and only cheapens the entire film.
This is the first time that I bothered to watch Guilty as Sin and it’s the first truly negative entry in the Cohen Case Files that I’ve written. Coincidence? I doubt it. I just hope my instincts on the other Cohen films that I’ve avoided are wrong, or this blog could quickly turn ugly.
I couldn’t find a trailer to embed, but you can check out a thirty second ad for the VHS release of the film on its IMDB page.
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