Absence of Malice (1981) ***1/2
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Recently deceased Pollack is one of the great film directors of all time—at least that’s what I’ve read over and over. Unfortunately, the only three films that he’s directed that I’ve seen are Tootsie, The Firm and most recently Out of Africa. Tootsie takes my prize for the most overrated film in history. Out of
Imagine either Woodward or Bernstein in All The President’s Men having an affair with Deep Throat, and you’ve come close to Absence of Malice, a newspaper drama that explores ethics—both the journalistic and human kinds. Sally Field, plucky and tough, plays Megan Carter, an extremely talented and ambitious workaholic reporter who prints a flimsy story that a man named Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) is the focus of the investigation into a murder. The story is leaked to her by a prosecutor with the hopes that Gallagher, the son of a long deceased mafia boss, will hand over information in order to get protection by the police. Megan pursues the story, even to the point of putting herself in seeming danger by accompanying Gallagher on his boat away from people.
Megan learns that Michael’s unstable childhood friend Teresa Perrone (Melinda Dillon) holds the key to his vindication. Michael was with Teresa in
Absence of Malice plays like a better than average John Grisham novel. While All the President’s Men was an unconventional thriller, Absence of Malice would be best described as a mystery-drama. There’s almost no suspense in the entire movie. The only scene with any real exhilaration is the one with Brimley, yet that business is over after ten or fifteen minutes. Most of the film involves either Megan struggling with right and wrong, or Megan struggling with her feelings for Michael. Megan is not willing to break the law, unlike other characters in the movie. The problem is that what’s legal isn’t always decent. Her desire to get the story is strong, as it must be for a woman in what at the time would have been a man’s job, so strong in fact that she inflicts emotional pain on innocent people and ruins what may be a great romantic relationship.
The supporting cast including Bob Balaban, Barry Primus, Don Hood and Arnie Ross all add real quality to the film by portraying the men that are players in Megan’s story. Yet, none of these men seems to be struggling with right and wrong. Their ethics (or lack thereof) are set in stone, while Megan deals with her conscience through this story. Melinda Dillon, in her Oscar nominated performance as Teresa, leaves quite a lasting impression on the viewer. Her scene with Megan is sad, desperate and extremely powerful all due to her talent as an actress.
Paul Newman, right on the cusp of looking more like the Paul Newman of today than the Paul Newman during his Butch Cassidy years, also received an Oscar nomination for his performance. He’s wisely understated, which makes a scene where he starts lashing out at Megan that much more startling by contrast. This isn’t one of his great performances, but it’s definitely solid.
Sally Field feels a little too mannered here. Without a doubt, she’s a talented actress, but she comes off cold because she is obviously playing the character to be cold. She lacks the subtlety of Neumann’s performance, while at the same time, she lacks the charisma to carry the film and even to pull off her character’s inner struggle successfully.
Absence of Malice is a fine film, though I still feel that I have yet to see Pollack at his revered best as a director. Without a doubt, he made a good film here. Though, films that are just good do not earn a man the respect that Pollack has received over the years. I’ll check out some more of his films soon, because I’m starting to think that the man, similar to his film Tootsie, may also be grossly overrated. I hate to kick dirt on a man’s grave, so hopefully watching more of his films will prove me wrong.