is so much conjecture surrounding it that I can’t imagine anyone reading over its details and not having a theory or at the least an opinion on it. It's in the same camp, I think, as the over-discussed and naturally speculation-magnetizing deaths of prominent figures like Natalie Wood or Thelma Todd. Their question-mark-covered demises were met with legal conclusions that never quite lined up with public opinion, which can only attract more theorizing. 


Reversal of Fortune dramatizes the case of the socialite Sunny von Bülow, who fell into a coma from which she never woke up in 1980 allegedly because of an accidental insulin overdose. (She died in 2008, remaining in a persistent vegetative state for some three decades.) The popular conclusion is that Sunny actually fell into this coma because her creepy husband of 14 years, Claus, had attempted to murder her and made it look like an accident in a ploy to prematurely inherit her wealth.


Claus, who faced a judge and a jury twice, never went to jail for the crime he was thought to have committed. (He was convicted once, but the charge was overturned eventually.) The whole thing smells. Claus continued to be unnervingly nonchalant about the incident for the rest of his life (he, as played by Jeremy Irons in the film, begins plenty sentences, hyper-calmly, with some variation of “you really think I’d be stupid enough to…”), and the old-moneyed Sunny had a far greater net worth than he did. Even his friends didn’t have much faith in him. 


Reversal of Fortune doesn’t make a definitive case against Claus. It doesn't want to be the dramatic equivalent of, for example, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1988), the documentary that had its own ideas about a wrongful conviction and presented them persuasively, legibly, and in a stylish quasi-thriller fashion to boot. The comparably inconclusive Reversal of Fortune is a character study with a 1 percent-satirizing kick. It’s fixated on Claus’ Machiavellian coldness, which wavers between frightening and comically staunch; Sunny’s apparent unhappiness as brought on by being middle-aged, rich, and with nothing to do (she’s played, as a pale and unmoving figure in bed and as a tormented, pre-comatose woman by Glenn Close); and befuddled law professor Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), who with a group of passionate students works tirelessly to construct a bulletproof appeal after Claus hires him to help. Dershowitz never stops believing that Claus is guilty for Sunny’s overdose but takes the assignment both because he likes the challenge presented and because Claus agrees to fund a defense case to which Dershowitz is particularly attached.


Did Claus do it? What was Sunny’s true pre-coma emotional state? Was she the depressed substance-abuser Claus painted her as? And isn’t Dershowitz a bit devious himself? (Ironically, a young Felicity Huffman, playing one of Dershowitz’s students, appears in one scene emphatically getting her moral concerns off her chest.)


The movie doesn’t linger in the courtroom as I expected it to. Instead we move back and forth between various locations Dershowitz and his team populate, trying to both figure out their defense as well as their own theories about what really went down. We also frequently go deep into the annals of flashbacks (which are often accompanied by wistful voiceover narration from Close), which animated what allegedly happened before the purported crime. Reversal of Fortune is designed to be ravenously eaten up, like a juicy magazine article cinematized. It likes facts but usually only when they’re also provocative; it just as much, if not equally, understands and puts to good use the powers of suggestion. 


Answers aren’t king in Reversal of Fortune because the eccentric people and motivations driving the questions are arguably more interesting. The film leans into lurid interest — and engagingly so. But this is complicated by the reality that what happened to Sunny is indubiously tragic; the movie discomfitingly characterizes her a little too much like a victim in an Agatha Christie story. Crafting a movie “based on” Sunny’s case that comprised fictionalized characters would have been the more practical, sensitive move. But, of course, with its narrative told to death before it so much as premiered, the movie’s writer, Nicholas Kazan, probably figured that it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.  


Tact aside, Reversal of Fortune rivets. When I was riveted, it had less to do with how the plot was taking shape and more so the people doing the shaping. Irons especially transforms. In the guise of Claus, we’re presented with a man for whom it seems every mannerism has been carefully planned in the mirror earlier in the morning. When Irons’ Claus smiles, it’s like this grin was one of several rehearsed versions, deemed the most “normal.” Claus, when Irons is playing him, seems like a person dangerously committed to a “bit” — the bit being pulling off a perfect crime. The commitment, at the end of Reversal of Fortune, is, it seems, frighteningly fruitful — solidified by a fucked-up last line.

eversal of Fortune (1990) is based on one of the most notorious true-crime stories of its decade. Some of that notoriousness is rooted in the fact that the mystery at its center was never officially solved. There



In Suspect, Cher is Kathleen Riley, a disenchanted, overworked public defender based in Washington, D.C. “I spend all of my day with murders and rapists, and what's really crazy, I like them,” she at one point says to a colleague, almost in disbelief at how much she’s acclimated to her job. Riley is at a moment in her career where she’s comfortable enough to sometimes phone it in. But her passion will be reignited in Suspect when she’s tasked with defending a deaf, mute, and homeless war veteran, Carl (Liam Neeson), who has been accused of murdering at random a young Justice Department filing clerk. (He was caught sleeping in her abandoned car, which was sitting in a parking lot next to the Potomac River.) Riley doesn’t think Carl is the person responsible from the outset. (If he is responsible, she doesn't think he's been treated fairly by the law.) He’s left-handed, while the killer was a rightie, first of all. And the police, who don’t so much as allow Carl an opportunity to communicate that he cannot hear or speak, from the jump have all but concluded the accused is their man. There is a sense that law enforcement has conflated Carl's being unhoused with being unequivocally villainous. 


One of the jurors on the case, corner-cutting lobbyist Eddie Sanger (Dennis Quaid), also has reservations about Carl's supposed guiltiness. He thinks it’s a possibility, even, that the latter is being set up. In Suspect, Riley and Sanger team up — an ethical no-no the film at the least explicitly addresses as one. (Riley initially balks at the idea, then gives in.) The movie doesn’t, however, consider that the hush-hush collaboration makes Riley seem generally more apathetic than laudably anti-heroic. Sanger virtually does detective work; Riley gets updated. 


What actually happened to the murdered clerk is revealed at the end of the movie. It reminds us of an online conspiracy theory that seems to not have any basis in truth but turns out to be actually, implausibly, true. Suspect ultimately strikes us as ridiculous. But because it has been directed with slick professionalism by Peter Yates (1968’s Bullitt

1972’s The Hot Rock) and is acted with intelligence and immediacy by Cher, it can at times feel evocative of a noiry prestige picture. At heart, it’s a rote episode of a TV law procedural stretched out to a feature’s length, topped off with an A-list cherry. For me, it usually goes (as it does I’m sure for many) that predictable TV procedurals are generally entertaining even after they’ve gone off the rails in the way Suspect does. Something is comforting about the rhythms; it doesn't always matter if those rhythms lose their backbeat toward the end. Suspect is in line with all this, although rather than telegenic C-list performers leading the way, we’re getting Cher, Quaid, and Neeson. There are worse things on which to rest your eyeballs. 

actress. Suspect is by miles the least consequential of her projects that year, which from the vantage point of 2020 is its own little murderer’s row. (The other ones were Moonstruck, the near-perfect romantic comedy for which she won a Best Actress Oscar, and the sexy, stylish fantasy comedy The Witches of Eastwick.) I found while watching Suspect that whether it was delivering certain genre-related goods (it’s a glossy legal thriller) didn’t matter much. I liked to simply watch Cher — more precisely Cher pretending to be a lawyer. It’s another costume for her to try on; she looks great in it. It’s a good thing she's superfluously stellar here, because the movie is otherwise a forgettable, if effective (and subtly narratively insane) courtroom drama that peaces out with a finale so illogical that it wouldn’t be wrong to laugh at it.


he draw of Suspect (1987) is its star, Cher, who I guess decided that 1987 was to be the year during which she would make an ineradicable mark as a movie

On SuspectReversal of Fortune, and Guilty as Sin

Presumed Guilty 

May 13, 2020  


Triple Feature

Liam Neeson and Cher in 1987's "Suspect."

Liam Neeson and Cher in 1987's Suspect.

Reversal of Fortune, Greenhill is also committed to pulling off the perfect crime. But he’s such a showman when it comes to being evil (he could be the antagonist of a low-tier superhero movie) that he almost compulsively throws on top of his scheming a couple of other sick manipulations for laughs.


At the beginning of the movie, Greenhill is accused of murdering his rich wife — an for which he is undoubtedly responsible. Almost immediately after the crime makes the front page he enlists cocksure lawyer Jennifer Haines (Rebecca De Mornay) to defend him. She, like Reversal of Fortune’s Dershowitz, concludes pretty immediately that this person of interest is no good — indubitably a bad guy. But still high off the fumes of the victory of her last case, she’s intrigued by the knot that is Greenhill’s case. Is she so talented a lawyer that she could get a man who has almost certainly killed someone out of trouble? In a baldly problematic move, she decides against her moral instincts to defend Greenhill to test her "winning" abilities. Haines pretty immediately regrets it — Greenhill takes an unhealthy interest in her once she's pledged an allegiance to him.


We learn toward the end of the film that Haines is just a part of a cobweb-like scheme assiduously devised by Greenhill. (When he expounds on his plot toward the end of Guilty as Sin, I was entranced by how much Johnson seemed to delight in the rotten things he was being tasked to say; he gives the kind of fun-to-watch performance where we can tell that for the actor, embodying over-the-top villainy is cathartic — an occasion where it’s OK to imbue an acting job with a lot of bluster.) One of the more interesting things about the movie is how Haines grapples with this dilemma: it’s a nightmarish one, to be sure, but she also wouldn’t have had to deal with it had she not given in to the more reckless part of her ego.


Guilty as Sin, like Suspect, is almost totally silly. But unlike Suspect, its performers and director (the dependable Sidney Lumet) appear to know exactly what kind of movie it is. The finale of Suspect is vexing because it doesn’t notice how insane it is. The finale of Guilty as Sin is even more insane, but because it seems to know it, we’re encouraged to get a kick out of it.



Reversal of FortuneB+

Guilty as SinB

he villain of another legal thriller, the Chicago-set Guilty as Sin (1993), is a hubristic, misogynistic playboy named David Greenhill (an extravagently wicked Don Johnson). Like Claus von Bülow seems to be in