Jennifer Haines (Rebecca De Mornay) is a successful lawyer in Chicago who gets to the heart of the cases she takes on with incisive intelligence and a willingness to defend her clients to the hilt, well, they are paying her a lot of money and those cases are often high profile. But during her latest session in the courtroom, where she once again blows a hole in the prosecution's accusations with evidence they cannot deny supplied by her professional cohort, the private detective and family friend Mo (Jack Warden), she notices that well-dressed man is in the public gallery once again. She doesn't know who he is, but he's always staring at her: does Jennifer have a fan? She finds out soon enough as David Greenhill (Don Johnson) is introduced...
Guilty as Sin represented a return to the courtroom genre for director Sidney Lumet, who back in the fifties made perhaps the greatest of them all in 12 Angry Men, but this has nowhere near the acclaim that classic did. In fact, many wondered what a director of his stature was doing with a script by Larry Cohen, a director himself who had spent the last decade making It's Alive sequels, Q the Winged Serpent and The Stuff, among others, not exactly the highest quality prestige efforts it would be fair to say. On the other hand, if you were a fan of trashier works such as that, your hopes may have been raised that Lumet would descend to Cohen's level and a fun ride would be on offer for fans of lurid thrillers.
Yet oddly, and this was odd, Lumet didn't approach it as Paul Verhoeven had Joe Eszterhas's script for Basic Instinct, the movie that had popularised the so-called erotic thrillers genre in the nineties, which was to turn up the volume on the most exploitative elements so that the results teetered on the edge of parody throughout. This wasn't even an erotic thriller at all, though that's how it was marketed, as Jennifer doesn't fall for Greenhill in the slightest, on the contrary she detests him from the minute she meets him to the finale, because she recognises him as a cunning manipulator who sees her as the best way to persuade a jury he has not pushed this wife out of a window recently. That's what he's accused of, and though Jennifer resists, that's what she has to defend him against.
Naturally, this started convoluted and stayed that way to the bitter end, but while Lumet could have had a lot of fun with this, what he actually did was present it with the utmost seriousness so that all the potential amusement was drained out of it. With its washed out, blue-tinted palette, Guilty as Sin was a disappointingly limp affair, and the fact that Jennifer and Greenhill did not have the complication of romance may have bucked a trend - she has a boyfriend (Stephen Lang) who sticks by her every step of the way, even at risk of personal injury - but also meant that there wasn't anything to steam up the screen. Johnson was obviously having fun as a psychopathic smoothie who keeps admitting terrible crimes to his lawyer as there's nothing she can do about it, but that fun wasn't infectious.
Or not as much as it should have been, at any rate. Every so often there was a glimmer of the romp it could have played out as, as when Greenhill makes a sandwich with maximum aggression while he essentially takes a stand for all the male equivalents of femmes fatales of which he believes himself to be one, but this was undercut by the way Jennifer wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire, which tended to sabotage his high opinion of his own abilities. Nevertheless, that point blank refusal for Jennifer to even slightly entertain the idea that her client might be interesting to have a fling with did make her a stronger, and let's face it, unusual character in this style of story, so much so that it was a little cheering to see the smug Greenhill won't get it all his own way. But there again was Lumet's insistence on conducting the material as sober as a judge when it needed a lot more oomph to set the pulse racing: for a thriller it was far too sedate, so when the ridiculous comeuppance occurs it looked to have arrived from a different movie entirely. Music by Howard Shore.
Esteemed American director who after a background in theatre moved into television from where he went on to be the five times Oscar nominated filmmaker behind some of the most intelligent films ever to come out of America. His 1957 debut for the big screen, 12 Angry Men, is still a landmark, and he proceeded to electrify and engross cinema audiences with The Fugitive Kind, The Pawnbroker, Cold War drama Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, The Offence, definitive cop corruption drama Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (another great Al Pacino role), Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running On Empty and his final film, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Often working in the UK, he also brought his adopted home town of New York to films, an indelible part of its movies for the best part of fifty years.