“That lady was bad news.” This is one of the many ominous phrases used to describe Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), a deputy prosecutor whose brutal murder lies at center of Presumed Innocent. Detective Lipranzer (John Spencer) uses that specific expression more than once in reference to Carolyn, who was as widely known for her sexual exploits within the district attorney’s office as her crafty skills in the courtroom. Lipranzer is only a sideline character in the film, a friend and informant to Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford), the prosecutor tasked with investigating Carolyn’s murder who quickly becomes the primary suspect. Nevertheless, Lipranzer’s summation of Carol is rife with implication and plays like a recurring melody in a symphony that resounds more profoundly with each expression.
On the surface, Presumed Innocent is a deft portrayal of the systemic corruption embedded in the legal system. Nearly every character manipulates, falsifies, or otherwise distorts as a means of staying one step ahead of the very system whose ethics and ideals they’re supposed to uphold, including and especially DA Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy). But pulsing through the film is an arguably darker current concerning sexual politics and power stemming from Carolyn’s beauty being regarded with fear and danger. Lipranzer’s comments are among many throughout the film that suggest a collective negative attitude toward Carolyn for being a woman who’d sleep with anyone to get to the top. Carolyn’s reputation is known even to Rusty’s own wife, Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia), who’s keenly aware of her husband’s previous affair with the victim. For the DA office’s men, whose preoccupations with Carolyn despite their own transgressions underline their hypocrisy, Carolyn was only “bad news” because she understood that the system was made to favor men and knew how to advance within it.