No wonder he ran away.

In February 1978, when Roman Polanski skulked off to LAX and hopped a plane to Europe, never to return, it seemed like the act of a frightened, guilty man. Convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl - after ducking a list of more serious charges - the celebrated director of Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown blew town rather than face jail time. The coward's way out.

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But Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, a fascinating if flawed documentary about the scandal and the man - and the victim, Samantha Geimer, nee Gailey, now 45 - tells a different story.

Yes, Polanski was guilty of having sex with a minor. But after his arrest, after months in the public spotlight, dogged by TV cameras and the press - a press intent on resurrecting the horrid 1969 murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski's pregnant wife, at the hands of Charles Manson's homicidal hippie cult - the filmmaker became something of a victim himself.

As revealed in Marina Zenovich's 75-minute film, which premieres on HBO tomorrow night at 9, the Polish-born Polanski was at the mercy of a grandstanding, media-obsessed judge. Laurence Rittenband, a Santa Monica jurist who sought out celebrity cases (Marlon Brando and Cary Grant both appeared on his docket), presided over the trial with a reckless authority that not only shook Polanski's defense attorney, but rattled the prosecution and the victim's lawyer, too.

It was on the eve of his sentencing, after Polanski had heard from his attorney, Douglas Dalton - who speaks about the case for the first time in Zenovich's doc - that the filmmaker decided to flee. Rittenband, Dalton recounts, was set to ignore a plea bargain struck with the D.A.'s office. Defying all precedent, the judge was going to sentence Polanski to serious time - possibly as much as 50 years.

The legal maneuvering, the courtroom theatrics, the closed-door deals are all detailed in Wanted and Desired. Dalton, who could have been played by Buddy Ebsen, comes off as forthright and honorable. So does Assistant D.A. Roger Gunson, a Mormon and a family man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Robert Redford, and who is also interviewed in the film. Gunson's incredulity and shock at Judge Rittenband's behavior jibes with Dalton's. Both lawyers say they saw Rittenband's actions as bordering on illegality. (Rittenband died in 1993; his law clerk speaks for his former boss in the film.)

There is no defending Polanski's behavior on the night of March 10, 1977, at the Mulholland Drive home of Jack Nicholson (out of town), where Polanski took nude photos of the girl, fed her champagne and Quaaludes, and engaged in sex with her. In his 1984 autobiography, Roman by Polanski, he asserted that the girl's mother had set him up as part of a blackmail scheme.

Geimer, in a 2003 op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, and again in Wanted and Desired, indicated that she believed Polanski did not, and does not, deserve to go to prison. The two parties confidentially settled a civil suit more than a decade ago. A gang of Polanski's friends - producers, film people, almost all of them male - rally to his defense on-camera. They call him a lover of life who made serious mistakes, but who was by no means a criminal.

So, Wanted and Desired - which uses archival interviews with Polanski (he declined to speak with Zenovich) - is juicy Hollywood stuff. Polanski, a Jew whose parents were shipped to Nazi concentration camps (his mother died at Auschwitz), has lived a life riddled with calamity and trauma. His childhood on the run during World War II inspired Jerzy Kosinski's novel The Painted Bird and certainly informed Polanski's own Holocaust drama, The Pianist (2002) - for which, in absentia, he won the Academy Award for directing.

What the HBO documentary, scheduled to go into theaters next month, also shows - albeit fleetingly - is what a wickedly brilliant filmmaker Polanski was.

The clips from 1965's Repulsion, with Catherine Deneuve as a terrified apartment dweller, signal Polanski's early knack for dark comedy and chilling disquietude, the gothic and grotesque mixed with a palpable sense of the real. And the scenes from Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974) - the latter including the classic moment with the director himself as a weaselly thug slicing Nicholson's nose - remind us how subversive and suspenseful his movies were.

Polanski is 74 now. He is based in Paris - where he has lived in de facto exile all these years. He is married, with children, to the actress Emmanuelle Seigner. (As a French citizen, Polanski is protected by his country's extradition laws - he can't be returned to the States for trial.)

With the exception of The Pianist, his movies, since he quit the States, have been far less successful - commercially, certainly, but artistically, too. His adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel, 1979's Tess, had the right sense of doom about it, and a beautiful performance from Nastassja Kinski (with whom he had a romantic relationship when she was 15, and he 43).

But from there until The Pianist it's been a downhill slide: the failed swashbuckler Pirates; the confused, Hitchcockian Frantic; the embarrassingly kinky Bitter Moon; the stagey Death and the Maiden; and the pulpy supernaturalism of The Ninth Gate.

And then there is Polanski's take on Dickens' Oliver Twist. Released in 2005, on the heels of The Pianist, the movie was a financial failure. Although there are signs here of a return to form - the director clearly relates on a personal level to the story of a street urchin, a kid on the run, scavenging, struggling to survive - the film lacks the fire, the focus, and the furious humor that marked Polanski's best work.

Still, after a couple of decades' worth of disappointments, Polanski shows with The Pianist and to a lesser extent, Oliver Twist, that he still has it in him. It's enough to make one wonder about what was truly gained in those decades in France, where Polanski found sanctuary, and what, in turn, was lost.

Who's to say what would have happened with his career - and his films - if Polanski had received a fair trial, served out his sentence, and gone back to making movies in Hollywood? Tainted by scandal, of course, but possibly toughened by it, too?

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.