GUILT AS PLEASURE
Don Johnson is so good in Sidney Lumet’s Guilty as Sin that it’s impossible to see how, with the exception of a more original script, he could be any better. It’s a dream part for the kind of performer whose talents for socio-psycho pathology have never been fully explored. Cutey-boy Johnson’s slithering suavity has always been there. Often his work in TV’s “Miami Vice” was at cross-purposes with the law-abiding intentions; draped in Nino Cerruti, sometimes fronting as a callous womanizing darksider, he became intriguing simply because he was so much more interesting and tempting as a baddie than as a ridiculously overdressed lawman. Here in Guilty, beyond mere slick, he’s in a new stratosphere of urban as well as urbane glibness; he’s the devil incarnate who fits right into our present amoral social climate. Because the movie droops when he’s not in it, we’re almost impatiently waiting for the next outrage he’ll perform. Johnson does not let us down, even when we know what’s coming, like when he teaches a snooping gumshoe (Jack Warden) a lesson on the dangers of not keeping up with technological advances in office maintenance. While others in the audience might want a scarier, more unstable villain, I think Johnson’s conquest of us is that there’s a safety mechanism built in his performance; we’re never in doubt as to his character’s guilt and as a result he glides from one transgression to another with the sole intent of entertaining us. We can feel his glee, and that’s a pleasure we don’t often get to share in. Rebecca De Mornay really suffers from Lumet’s notorious “fast take” method—she can’t latch on to her character as quickly as Johnson does. Playing the Glenn Close part from Jagged Edge, she’s hell-bent too fast; and she seems bored by the game playing, which is a cardinal sin if you’re playing a lawyer opposite charismatic Johnson, and if you’re an actress having previously played a psychobitch in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (better titled Peyton’s Place). She’s got a tantalizing wiggle, and if there’s anything else worth watching about her, it’s her uncanny resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Not just in hair and face, but check out that one winter coat she wears—with attached scarf. I think we saw something like that at the Clintons’ outdoor inaugural festivities. Johnson and De Mornay laugh too nervously at their own shitted-up lines, while we’re either silent or barely giggling. The humor’s deadish throughout, coming to life but once—when Johnson’s sitting at the bar of a swanky club. Things actually don’t get going until a judge puts the screws to the expensively priced De Mornay—forcing her to defend Johnson gratis when it seems he can’t pay the fees—and then the action really speeds up when new evidence is presented at the trial. It’s during this trial scene that Larry Cohen’s script reveals a masterstroke: Johnson flashes on the crime he’s been accused of and we see just how cleverly the tracks have been covered. (Did O.J. get ideas?) When the camera moves in on Johnson in the courtroom, we nearly see his mind processing his possible framers. With the exception of a badly directed scene wherein he wears a white bathrobe and exhibits the script-required craziness, Johnson does not chew up the scenery, as some critics have charged; instead he diagrams his pathological swarthiness to the max. Guilty as hell, that’s just the way we want him.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.