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Social issue films take an interesting turn in the prestigious 1981 production Absence of Malice. Written by Kurt Luedtke and directed by Sydney Pollack, the story of an honest businessman's persecution by unethical law enforcement officials and a wholly irresponsible press generated plenty of controversy. Along with the impressive The Verdict and several other hits, this picture cemented Paul Newman as Hollywood's most durable male star. Sally Field was enjoying a career high as well, with a string of memorable pictures following on her Oscar success in Norma Rae.
Absence of Malice plays out its topical theme amid a number of far-from-perfect characters. Miami liquor wholesaler Mike Gallagher (Newman) is the honest son of a notorious old-time bootlegger, and he still has family connections to mobsters like Old Man Malderone (Luther Adler, in his final film). Impatient for information on the Mafia, federal investigator Rosen (Bob Balaban) goes outside the law: he leaks to local reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) the falsehood that Gallagher is being investigated for the murder of a local labor organizer. Gallagher complains to the newspaper and Megan personally but is told that their source of information is none of his business. The union strikes Gallagher's warehouse and the client list he's taken twelve years to build up, evaporates overnight. Sympathizing, Megan finds that she likes Gallagher a lot, and spends the night with him. But she takes advantage of Gallagher's unstable friend Teresa (Melinda Dillon) when the woman offers information that would clear Gallagher of the crime. Megan's story puts Teresa in such a bad position that tragedy results. Gallagher can't control his anger, and vows to see that the parties responsible for ruining his life suffer for their crimes.
Based in part on a real case, Absence of Malice is an efficient and forceful look at social trends that, thirty years later, are accepted as a part of life. With the pressure on to get results and collect the rewards, careerists in every field routinely bend the rules. In the resulting atmosphere of cynicism, many believe that the only way for individuals to survive is to find a crooked hook to hang onto. Imperfect as it is, this movie is almost alone in its examination of the problem.
Gallagher wastes no time getting to the bottom of things. He takes Megan out on his boat in an attempt to find out what's going on. Paul Newman is especially effective as a hard-nosed guy trying to stay above the fray, even though it's his life that is being turned upside-down. A less self-assured man would simply fold up upon seeing his picture published on the paper's front page, as a suspected murderer.
We immediately understand Gallagher's problem: he's a victim of the media used as a public relations weapon. Decent candidates won't go into politics because of the institutionalized rituals of character assassination, a hunger for dirt that knows no mercy. Being a person in the public eye, whether an elected official or a celebrity, is the same as hanging a target on one's chest. Having the resources -- and the stomach -- to manage one's media image is a necessity for anybody living a public life.
Absence of Malice is a worst-case scenario, a public-relations nightmare and a perfect storm of casual persecution. Its characters are right out of a 1930s melodrama. Bob Balaban's slimy investigator Rosen knows exactly what he's doing when he flagrantly breaks the law. He hopes to force Gallagher to volunteer information on his father's old associates. Rosen isn't a public servant with bad judgment, but a 'company man' eager to make good to rise in the corporation. He is flanked by a spineless prosecutor with an equally careerist, CYA attitude toward all decisions. The two men should be cooperative partners, but it's obvious than neither trusts the other. Rosen's own case investigator likewise knows that his boss is breaking the law. These men act as if doing so is business as usual.
At this point the show would seem to be very liberal at heart. Gallagher is like a blacklist victim, someone with a past that can be exploited by ambitious politicians in Washington. But Absence of Malice quickly reverses its direction to lay the blame on an easy target. It does it through the film's sympathetic leading lady.
The movie continually presents Sally Field's character as a good person because she cares, an assumption that the film doesn't really bear out. Megan Carter is an opportunistic, gutless and wholly unprincipled creep. This so-called reporter has no ethics. She knows very well that Rosen is allowing her to sneak a peek at his (doctored) Gallagher file, so she should be able to put 2+2 together and realize that she's being played. Nope, all she's thinking of is the important byline she's going to get. With the full approval of her editor and the paper's lawyer, Megan stakes her professional honor on not telling Gallagher who is striking out at him. She puts Gallagher in a position not unlike Detective Bradford Galt in the classic noir The Dark Corner: "I'm backed up in a dark corner, and I don't know who's hitting me."
At first, Megan's actions get a grudging pass. She might really be a Dodo instead of simply acting like one. Megan doesn't stop there. She makes a feeble attempt to have Gallagher tailed. She hides a microphone under her clothing in the hope of recording an incriminating statement. She then sleeps with this man that she's crucified in public, compromising any claim she might have to professional objectivity. Megan then prints a story that she knows will destroy Gallagher's sister, simply because its salacious content will attach an interesting, readable new scandal to the case. Megan Carter's every selfish decision hurts people and outrages decency. When caught in her perfidy, her defense is the usual cheap dodge: "It's my job. I was just being professional."
Sam Fuller was a patriotic champion of the free press and a defender of its rough edges. I'd like to hear his thoughts on the issues behind this show. New York tabloid papers were this dirty back in the '20s and '30s; the problem is that the mainline papers of 1980 now operate with the same set of cat-fight morals. Megan Carter's thoroughly reprehensible editor excuses his heartless, vicious actions with statements like, " Every story hurts somebody." The only important aspect of a potential story is whether or not it will sell papers. Perhaps the morals of the public are so degraded that we are simply getting the news we deserve. Reportage of crucial policy decisions that affect our lives is routinely pushed aside by the most trivial media scandals and irrelevancies.
The dialogue, acting and direction are first-rate. Of course, having villains of this stature enables Absence of Malice to get the audience on its side when Mike Gallagher strikes back with a vengeance. Although he isn't a crook Gallagher is an excellent counter-strategist. He maneuvers his enemies into a clever trap by making it look as if the prosecutor is accepting payoffs. That's when Absence of Malice plays its ace card.
Audiences love seeing actor Wilford Brimley's gruff authoritarian Wells enter the film. An out-of-town lawman who outranks the local scum Rosen and his prosecutor, Wells sweeps in to chastise the wrongdoers and deal out retribution. Like Nick Charles of the Thin Man movies, Wells forces all the parties into a room and quickly separates the wicked from the virtuous. Unfortunately, the audience accepts the Wells scene as a realistic example of "how things should work." Basically a "Wilford Ex Machina", the character restores the audience's illusion that all offices of power are accountable to higher authorities - that "someone is in charge", and if the right people were attending to business, malefactors in the justice system would be quickly curbed.
After this dubious scene of wrongs being righted, the most galling thing about Absence of Malice is that that insufferable idiot Megan is given a pass: "She didn't mean anybody harm." Gallagher himself tells Megan that she has the makings of a good reporter. Megan's boss wants to promote her to the rank of editor! What Megan really needs is a demotion to some line of work that will restrain her from hurting other people with her utter hair-brained thoughtlessness.
Sidney Pollack's show carries a conservative warning: that the so-called Free Press is actually an evil institution. Those crooked government operatives are just a few bad eggs, and individual reporters are just doing their jobs when they publicize peoples' dirty laundry. But the journalistic profession as a whole is indicted as hopelessly corrupt. By the time the Reagan '80s came to a close, journalists were lumped with attorneys as scummy bottom feeders. The movies reflected this trend -- look at William Atherton's outrageously venal newsman in 1988's Die Hard.
Image Entertainment is now licensing chosen Columbia library titles for Blu-ray. This handsome BD pressing of Absence of Malice has an excellent transfer (Sony still does all of its own restoration work) and very good sound; the movie looks better than the grainy 35mm print I saw when the picture was new.
A very good documentary-featurette digs into the story source for the movie, a real case that caught the filmmakers' attention. A deleted scene is included as well. Although Michael Gallagher's credit is excellent, a banker turns down his routine business loan because his notoriety has made him a bad risk -- will he soon be in prison and unable to make payments?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Absence of Malice Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.