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Absence of Malice (1981 - PG)
“Absence of Malice” picks up three years after the murder of an alleged union striker. The suspect: Mike Gallagher, son of a former Mafia boss. When a young female reporter gets involved in the case things turn messy as “bad” facts and “false” leads get printed. In an attempt to rectify her wrongs Megan Carter begins a more personal approach to her investigation. But sometimes there’s a fine line between business and pleasure and there are certain lines you don’t cross, certain stories you don’t tell, and certain rules you always follow, like “Absent of Malice”.
Written by: Kurt Luedtke.
Directed by: Sydney Pollack.
Genre: Drama, Romance.
Tagline: “Mr. Gallagher, to the best of our knowledge the story is true.”
|A whirling Newspaper printing montage commences the film. From the construction of stencils, to the ink-line, to large-scale machinery, one witnesses the assembly line that produces the daily news, gossip, and all other miscellaneous “things” that qualify for print. Meanwhile a group of local newspaper journalists are discussing the recent lead on a murder case concerning victim, Mike Diaz (who has been dead for the past 3 years) and his “still” alleged murder suspect, the notorious “mafia” man, Mike Gallagher (Paul Newman).
An interested reporter, Megan Carter (Sally Field) is intent to get involved, but, deemed too young and too innocent by her fellow male coworkers; it seems she might have to take back seat on this one unless she makes an opportunity to do otherwise. As Carter heads over to a local office to question a fellow chief reporter, Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban), she “accidentally” stumbles across Gallagher’s government file which provokes her to take a quick “peek” and write an impromptu article concerning the current status of Gallagher as an alleged murderer. Taking the “lead” story to fellow attorney Davidek (John Harkins) she questions her right and security of printing such a story. So it seems she is “absent malice” and, in lieu of her prudent research, free to run her story.
All the same, the alleged mafia man Michael Gallagher (who is actually the son of a long since dead mafia boss) appears at her desk the first day the story is run, vehement and outraged at the story’s alleged falsities. So Elliot Rosen takes his inquiries to the next level in hopes of ascertaining some more information. Likewise Carter’s former love-interest goes to Gallagher direct to do some questioning of his own. Still, enraged that he is being unlawfully queried, he kicks Quinn and partner Eddie Frost out of his office and heads home where another surprise awaits: Teresa Perrone (Melinda Dillon), a catholic school teacher and Gallagher’s best friend, is waiting on his front steps to talk about the latest “story” concerning Gallagher.
Worrisome that the DA may come after her for answers, Gallagher and Perrone go over an impromptu “interview” to help her smooth through some questions, including some particularly interesting pre-meditated answers. Next thing is next: “lunch” with Carter on the open sea. Appropriately “hooked-up” up and ready to “roll” (e.g. record a testimony), Carter is hoping to squeeze some info out of Gallagher that will provide her with protection and viable evidence towards the case. One beer and an impromptu interview later, and Carter is surprised to find she may be dealing with someone quite different that she first suspected. Likewise Gallagher suspects the same of Carter and, after discovering her little “sleuthing props” (e.g. the microphone), he concludes the interview just in time for a romantic lunch.
To complicate matters, representatives of Joseph Diaz come initiate a picket line at Mike’s business. So it seems Mike Gallagher is out of some helpful hands with his liquor business and into some potential legal trouble. To smooth matters over Mike goes out for a drink, and coincidentally runs into Megan Carter. So the banter ensues, strictly professional of course. Several cocktails later and Carter and Gallagher are having quite an intimate dinner at a quaint restaurant. But the dinner turns sour quite quickly after Carter suspects Gallagher of hustling her for the source of her story.
A stalemate goodbye results in an unsuspected visitation by Teresa Perrone the following day. Attempting to confide in Carter in hopes she will print her story to rectify the wrongs of Carter’s form headline, Perrone is upset to learn that, because she won’t provide her name, Carter is unable to use her story as a viable source. But when Teresa confesses to Michael’s accompanying her to get an abortion the night of the Diaz murder (read alibi), but pleads equally not to print the story, Carter decides that her testimony is not only viable but an imperative source. Still, she hesitates to print the story, but, is overruled by a fellow journalist. All the same, after running the story, Carter learns that Perrone commits suicide.
When Carter goes to confront Gallagher about the suicide she is, as suspected, assaulted, and left to second guess her intentions with printing the story. What exactly is her duty as a reporter? Doesn’t she have some liability for the consequences of her story? For retribution Carter leaks the name responsible for printing Carter’s story concerning Perrone. The consequence, Gallagher is let off the hook and deemed innocent, for the time being. Still, Rosen wants to go after him due to the recent leak of some potentially suspect cashier checks. With things turning a bit more personal between Gallagher and Carter it seems she may have to sell out her professional loyalties for more personal ones.
But when Carter’s former lover interest leaks information to Carter concerning Gallagher’s actions as perhaps suspect (e.g. paying off Quinn to call off the investigation), she approaches both Carter, and Quinn in hopes of getting to the bottom of the truth. Still, soon enough legal action is necessary. Enter Assistant U.S. Attorney General James A Wells (Wilford Brimley) to put Rosen, Jim, Carter, Gallagher, Quinn, etc. under fire, deeming all suspect for unprofessional actions involving the investigation of Gallagher’s case. While in front of Wells, Rosen takes the initiative to confront Gallagher with knowledge of his suspect $9,000 in unaccounted paychecks. But when Gallagher pins the checks on Jim Quinn things turn messy. Though Gallagher and Carter are excused, it’s only a matter of time before Quinn’s career hits rock bottom and Gallagher and Carter’s names get smeared in the papers. And then, just like yesterday’s news, they are left to become just a thing of the past…
“Absence of Malice” is, well, dated. All the same the film is well cast and Paul Newman and Sally Field do a good job with the leads (though I find it hard to believe the chemistry here is “natural”). Actually, some of the more impressive performances were those by the minor roles, including Melinda Dillon’s performance as the unstable Teresa Perrone, John Harkins as attorney Davidek (his scene in the beginning of the film, though small, is well done), and Wilford Brimley’s performance as Asst. U.S. Attorney General James A. Wells. These three made an impact on the film that, was not only much needed, but much appreciated.
As far as cinematography, musical score, and other technical divisions of the film goes, don’t expect too much. The film is par with its contemporaries but not superior or extraordinarily unique or impressive. With “Absence of Malice” it’s the story that you’re looking for and the nuance in the dialogue, character development, and character interactions that make the film a progressive, evolutional project. The film starts and stops with two distinct sets of characters that undergo a metamorphosis throughout one journalist’s investigation. It is here that the key to the film’s success lay. It’s in the small things, the witty epithets, slanders, and plot intricacies that move along with and in the dialogue. It is well deserved that Kurt Luedtke was recognized by several critical film associations for his screenplay.
“Absence of Malice” was nominated for three Oscars in 1982: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Paul Newman), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Melinda Dillon), and Best Writing, Screenplay (Kurt Luedtke). Additionally the film garnered another 3 wins: Berlin International Film Festival’s Honorable Mention and Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” awards (Sydney Pollack), and the Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for est Supporting Actress (Melinda Dillon). Likewise the film received 4 nominations from additional critical film association, including 2 Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress (Sally Field) and Best Screenplay (Kurt Luedtke).
Paul Newman plays Michael Colin Gallagher, the alleged murder suspect in the Mike Diaz homicide.
Sally Field plays Megan Carter, an ambitious reporter who decides to undertake the Gallagher case.
Bob Balaban plays Elliot Rosen, fellow reporter whose long been invested in the Gallagher case.
Melinda Dillon plays Teresa Perrone, Gallagher’s best friend.
Don Hood plays D.A. James A Quinn, the unexpected “new” suspect in the Gallagher case.
Wilford Brimley plays Asst. U.S. Atty. Gen. James A Wells, the man under which the case collapses.
John Harkins plays Davidek, Carter’s newspaper’s attorney.
Davidek: “Let us assume that he is neither a murder nor the subject of an investigation per se. Let us suppose that your story proves to be false. “
Carter: “This story is true.”
Davidek: “Well, if newspapers printed nothing but truth they need never employ attorneys and I should be out of work, which I am not. “
Carter: “I’ve read the file.”
Davidek: “I am not a whit interested in facts, I’m concerned with the law and the question is not whether or not your story is true, it’s what protection do we have if it proves to be false…”
* * *
Davidek: “Have you spoken with Mr. Gallagher?”
Carter: “We don’t exactly call the mafia for comment.”
Davidek: “Please make the attempt. If he talks to us we’ll includes his denials which will create the appearance of fairness. If he declines to speak we can hardly be responsible for errors which he refuses to correct. And if we fail to reach him well at least we tried.
Carter: “What are you telling me counselor?”
Davidek: “I’m telling you madam that as a matter of law, the truth of your story is irrelevant. We have no knowledge that the story is false therefore we are absent malice. We have been both reasonable and prudent therefore we are not negligent. We may say whatever we like about Mr. Gallagher and he is powerless to do us harm. Democracy is served.”
Davidek: “Mr. Gallagher, to the best of our knowledge the story is true.”