Absence of Malice (US 1981)

Michael (Paul Newman) and Megan (Sally Field) on his boat, ‘The Rum Runner’

MUBI also includes in its streaming schedule some Hollywood films from the recent past (see below for definitions of ‘recent’). This last week saw two Sydney Pollack titles added to the roster (the other is Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman). Pollack had a forty-year career as a director, producer and actor working with the leading stars from 1965 to 2005. As a director he made conventional mainstream films with strong narratives, often dealing with outsider figures from a ‘liberal’ perspective. Absence of Malice pairs Paul Newman and Sally Field. I was a fan of both actors in 1981 but I don’t remember watching this at the time. I always loved Newman as a star, wishing only that he would make more films as a director – Rachel, Rachel (1968) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1971) are films I’d happily watch again. Sally Field is still active but her peak film career was probably from the mid 1970s to the mid ’90s when Hollywood’s sexism cast her as the older woman destined for character parts. Earlier she had often been paired with male stars ten or more years older (Burt Reynolds, James Garner et al.) and therefore a romance with Newman was par for the course.

‘Absence of malice’ is a legal term relevant to libel law in the US. A newspaper may print a story that may not be true about a person as long as they do so in good faith, not knowing that it is false. Whether the film’s plot actually works in terms of the US legal system appears to be open to question. The basic premise is that Megan (Sally Field), a news reporter for a local Miami paper, runs a story about an FBI investigation of a local rum importer, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) who is assumed to be a suspect in the disappearance of a local union leader. Michael’s father was a ‘rum runner’ during prohibition with contacts in organised crime. Michael was sent to good schools and is ‘clean’. The news report creates major difficulties for Michael with the withdrawal of labour by his unionised workforce and loss of business with local restaurants. He begins his fightback by confronting Megan about where she got the story.

Newman is still a star in 1981.

As the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the local FBI boss is ‘fishing’ for leads and that the District Attorney has his own election issues. Throw in that Michael and Megan have an attraction for each other plus there is a third person with an emotional attachment involved in Michael’s situation and an intriguing narrative develops. The Miami setting is well handled and the film begins with a documentary montage detailing the hot metal process for newspaper printing that should be an eye-opener for younger viewers. Megan is an interesting character. She’s without a significant back story and it could be argued that she finds herself trapped between her boss (the editor played Josef Sommer) the FBI team (at least one of whom is an admirer) and Michael – all older men. But she remains her own woman. It’s good to see Sally Field playing her real age (34) and coming across as a professional woman rather than simply as the plot’s romance interest. In her best line she reminds Michael that she is a woman of 34 who doesn’t need courting. Some reviewers at the time saw her character as an example of a ‘bad journalist’ (in the context of All the President’s Men in 1976). That seems a mis-reading to me. Megan certainly uses the tricks she knows to get a story but I don’t think that makes her ‘bad’, especially given the pressure on her to sensationalise – which she tries not to do.. I won’t spoil the narrative by explaining Melinda Dillon’s character as Teresa, but she won an Oscar nomination for her part. There were also nominations for Newman and for the main writer Kurt Luedtke who had been a newspaper reporter and editor – he wrote two further scripts for Pollack, Out of Africa in 1985 and Random Hearts in 1999.

A more relaxed Megan with her cynical editor McAdam (Josef Sommer)

A couple of days before I saw the film, someone suggested to me that some younger film programmers saw 1980s films as ‘classic cinema’ now. I was initially shocked but now I can see that there is evidence to support this. Absence of Malice seems more like the tail-end of 1970s Hollywood. Aspects of the plot are similar to several of those 70s movies that find darker, ‘murkier’? elements in cities like Miami. I did find some of the costumes odd. Newman is beautiful in his mid fifties, still slim and still with those piercing blue eyes, but in one scene he wears high-waisted jeans with a tight check shirt which didn’t work for me in terms of the character. Sally Field has a smaller version of that 80s ‘big hair’ trend and a succession of suit outfits with heels which make her look uncomfortable in the heat of Miami (especially when clambering into Michael’s boat. But these are minor worries. What does seem ‘classic’ is that this is engaging entertainment over 116 minutes for an adult audience without a contrived tacked-on ending. It’s good to be reminded that Hollywood could once do this on a regular basis.

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