Dec. 17, 2005
Absence of Malice (1981)
Grade: 56/100

Director: Sydney Pollack
Stars: Paul Newman, Sally Field, Melinda Dillon

What it's about. Cutie big city newspaper reporter Sally Field publishes a story stating Paul Newman is suspected of a mob hit on a Union leader. Newman understandably doesn't like this, and starts his own investigation, which involves seducing Ms. Field, then getting revenge on government prosecutors.

How others will see it. Field and Newman were proven box office draws by 1981. Fans of either/both actors should be pleased. Newman is cagey and determined. Perhaps a little shady, even for a 'businessman.' Field is less perky than usual, appropriate for a 'serious' journalist.

Popular character actors have small roles. Melinda Dillon is Newman's nervous, chain-smoking friend. Folksy Wilford Brimley is a high-ranking Department of Justice investigator.

The film's complex evaluation of what is right and wrong will be of little interest to anyone, except possibly journalist professors, and the film's writers and director. Events move along a satisfactory pace to please most intellectual viewers. A dash of romance and a hint of mystery are probably insufficient to involve devotees of those genres.

How I felt about it. Absence of Malice is, in the end, a lesson on the ethics of reporters, prosecutors, and the falsely accused. The scorecard shows that three people with good intentions have their lives or careers ruined. Another with good intentions is also likely to get into trouble (Sally's would-be boyfriend at the DA's office.)

Those with bad intentions include the jerk DA Rosen (Bob Balaban), who comes out poorly, but will probably suffer more no more than a rung or two on the career ladder. As it turns out, Newman is also out for himself, but his payback isn't violent, despite his reputation. It's cynical and effective. But, he's definitely not better off than before.

So, who wins? Not the reporters, the investigators, or the accused. The killers of the union leader gain, since the prosecutor's resources are squandered on a cold trail. We learn that Newman is streetwise throughout. His primary motive is revenge. He also wants to keep his skin.

Field's situation is more complex. Her loyalties are to the newspaper. Using her feminine charm to get information is part of the game. Her mistake was revealing her source to Newman, instead of having him arrested for assault.

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