Absence of Malice-1981

Absence of Malice-1981

Director-Sydney Pollack

Starring-Paul Newman, Sally Field

Scott’s Review #1,055

Reviewed August 20, 2020

Grade: A-

Absence of Malice (1981) is a terrific, slick crime thriller that while compelling and way above average in content, feels like a studio creation and a starring vehicle for its two A-list stars. There is little wrong with this since Paul Newman and Sally Field are top notch talent and the resulting project has tension, thrills, and a relevant concept. I loved the Miami locales as the hot and steamy atmosphere helps set the proper tone tremendously with sizzling romance and intrigue. Despite feeling manipulated for the casting, the film nonetheless feels fresh and authentic.

The film compares to 1976’s magnificent All the President’s Men as far as story and look goes, though Absence of Malice is much more mainstream. The former has more grit and dirt while the latter adds some romance that may or may not have been a wise decision and the chemistry between Newman and Field is mediocre, but it’s the story that works. In rock n roll terms, Absence of Malice is the opening act to All the President’s Men’s headliner. They make a perfect double-bill.

Field plays Megan Carter, an ambitious young journalist who writes a scathing article implicating Michael Gallagher (Newman), a successful liquor wholesaler with ties to a criminal family, with the disappearance of a labor leader. When he confronts Megan, she sees his side and the duo team up to find the truth. Complicating matters is their mutual attraction which leads to romantic interludes.

The initial setup seems like a ploy to have Megan and Michael at odds and then fall madly in love. Fortunately, the story has more depth than that. Any trite 1980’s or 1990’s romantic comedy uses the same trick. No, not only do sparks fly but the characters realize that Megan was duped in order to write the article. This sets off a series of events to figure out who wants to frame Michael and why. And why Megan has been “chosen” to help see this through.

There is plenty of political espionage and other things to keep the audience engaged. Similar genre films would flood movie theaters throughout the decade becoming watered down. If Absence of Malice was released in 1988 or 1989 it would not have had the same effect as it did upon release in 1981. The soggy 1980’s style film making had not yet appeared, so I like to think of Absence as more of a 1970’s film.

Field is a Nancy Drew type, a sleuth determined to solve a mystery. She is assertive, yet feminine with a trendy hairstyle. Newman is, well, Newman. Aging handsomely with his dazzling blue eyes he can charm the pants off any woman. I didn’t quite buy the romantic element and not because he is at least twenty years older than she. He is suave and charming, and she is so strait-laced that the romance doesn’t work. The film would have been better as a buddy film with a male and a female buddy.

Supporting stars flesh the film out nicely, especially Melinda Dillon who is fabulous in the role of Teresa Perrone, the conflicted friend of Michael’s who serves as his alibi. In a nicely crafted side story, she suffers because her abortion is revealed to the public. Teresa, a devout Catholic must decide between life and death. Admirable is it to give a supporting character a good, juicy story.

Pollack is the right director for the job and he successfully crafts a thriller that is laden with liberal beliefs and serves up a message film without losing the tension. Absence of Malice has snippets of style and tone reminiscent of some of his other films like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969), The Way We Were (1973), and The Electric Horseman (1979). My mind wanders thinking about a potential Robert Redford/Jane Fonda pairing instead of Field and Newman, or some combination of a Barbra Streisand/Newman/Redford/Fonda mix.

I am not sure if Absence of Malice (1981) is still on anyone’s radar, but some forty years later the message couldn’t be timelier. When journalists are regularly attacked by government officials for providing “fake news” or “alternate facts” this film is a refreshing reminder that more often what they seek is to uncover corruption and get to the truth.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Paul Newman, Best Supporting Actress-Melinda Dillon, Best Original Screenplay

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