There is an old conceit now relegated mostly to sensational and comic-book level works involving the sins of others and our ability to detect them with a touch. The idea will strike the non-believer as preposterous, and as well it should: determining the concealed wickedness of the human race is not ours to worry. We may espy something in the demeanor of a certain person that betrays him – a wink, a smirk, an irreverence towards any form of prosecution – and again I stray into the wide white path of spiritual fantasy. So many times have we sought to review the crimes on another's conscience so as to justify our intuition that something is very wrong. A luxury that would have come in handy in this film.
The protagonist is Jennifer Haines (Rebecca De Mornay), a strangely unobtrusive name for a woman we come to understand as one of Chicago's finest young attorneys. Her ambition is documented in an opening scene that is standard fare in these sort of movies, an in medias res trial about a fantastic client and a stunning victory that will cement her reputation – and I think you know the rest. Unlike the menu we are usually served, however, we are given little run-up to our first viewing of David Greenhill (Don Johnson at the height of his smarminess) sitting in the courtroom with a smile as broad as that of an omniscient showstopper witness holding himself back just for fun. "Your fan is back again, he's been here every day," says a co-worker to Jennifer, and the two women indulge in giggly speculation. Greenhill may be handsome and a sartorial pleasure, but his infamy will stem from his headline arrest for the murder of his very rich wife. "The police are looking all over for him, and he has the nerve to walk into a Superior Court and watch a trial?" says Phil, Jennifer's nerdy boyfriend whose unkempt hair and moustache provide a strong contrast to the green-eyed lady-killer he will come to despise. Despise because after a brief interview with Chicago's scandal of the year, Jennifer decides not only that Greenhill is innocent but that she will provide him with the best possible legal defense.
A brief aside: given the nature of the works reviewed on these pages, a production such as Guilty as Sin would seem to be an unlikely candidate for further examination. The plot, after all, recycles many of the elements of other noir films about a seductive man or woman (usually the latter, a stereotype to which Greenhill alludes in one of his "soliloquies") who uses every ounce of her guile and sexual attraction to manipulate an otherwise good person compromised, as in this case, by unbridled ambition. Yet the resemblance to other films is only superficial for two reasons: the slow twists of the plot, or I should say, the very slow twists, and the casting. For a film that declares itself to be a thriller and even takes on a provocative if boilerplate name, a typical feature of pulp noir novels, very little actually occurs. There is a lot of talk, a lot of innuendo and sidelong glances, and, perhaps most curiously, very few characters. We tend to see such productions more often in European cinema, an industry far more dependent on budget and good taste.
We see, for example, nothing of Greenhill's deceased spouse apart from a letter she allegedly composed and mailed the day of her death to implicate him in what he insists was a suicide. "My wife was a very sick woman," Greenhill tells his increasingly repulsed attorney, "two years ago she had to be institutionalized for seven months. Clinical depression. And she swore that she'd get back at me even if it meant from the grave." It is unclear from this statement why Mrs. Greenhill would have any reason to avenge herself against her husband; one may guess for the process of institutionalization itself, but this matter is never addressed again. On another occasion, Greenhill emerges from the sauna within his fabulous penthouse to greet Jennifer who has come by to ask him, among other things, what the hell he might be doing dropping off his clothes at her dry cleaners, one of the many indications that their client-counsel relationship has taken a turn for the sleazy. While listening to her complaints, Greenhill makes himself a sandwich with such relish and hunger (and splashing on so much mayonnaise) that we are immediately struck by all the motivations this man might have on this earth. He is, without a doubt, the greediest and most conniving Casanova the world has ever encountered – or at least gaining such credentials remains his tacit aim. It is at this point that the accused defends himself with some long-practiced sophistry, again winning enough of Jennifer's sympathy to stave off notions of turning him in with the additional information he casually provides about his prior activities.
The film also features Leo (Jack Warden), an old friend of Jennifer's whose link to her is made explicit in our opening minutes ("If your mother hadn't turned me down nine times, I'd be your father"), as well as a couple of other witnesses and laborers whose collective testimony doesn't do much to sway our convictions (at one point, one of the witnesses who are supposed to incriminate Greenhill compliments his attire, leading the dandy to stand up for the admiration of the entire courtroom). While Phil's every clenched fist and jealous accusation feed into a general portrait of someone not really cut out to accompany a very famous and very pretty attorney through life, Greenhill exudes a certain low-key surgical confidence that has always worked on women and also seems to be working on us. More than once does the hunky philanderer confess to a crime that he rescinds soon thereafter just to see whether he can read the expression on Jennifer's face. Somehow we laugh as he laughs; somehow we are indignant as his rage explodes; and somehow we cannot wait until he reappears on our screen. Perhaps we should think twice. But since when have we resisted aesthetic pleasure, guilty or otherwise?