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Absence of Malice (1981)

As the years move by and Paul Newman’s movie career slips into the past, I find myself reminded of just how dynamic he could be when I revisit some of his films that fall into that category below the accepted “classic’ status of a Butch Cassidy, The Hustler or Cool Hand Luke. Absence of Malice is just such a film. A movie I’ll admit to not appreciating all that much when I first saw it upon it’s release to VHS but that was more likely due to my age at the time.

Here I am a mere 38 years later revisiting it and realizing it’s another powerful performance by the man with the piercing blue eyes whose known to Canadian hockey fans far and wide as Coach Reggie Dunlop. As a matter of fact, his character here, Michael Gallagher, loves to drink his beer. Same as Reggie.

The film’s direction is triggered when reporter Sally Field publishes an article that Paul Newman may have had something to do with the disappearance of a Labor Leader (shades of Hoffa). Newman’s playing a distant relative of “the family” but has no interest in the criminal activities that his deceased father had. Still, he has ties to some powerful underworld figures if he chooses to reach out.

In reality Miss Field has been used by Bob Balaban’s crusading prosecutor to set up Newman. He’s hoping that by leaking the story which is totally untrue, that Newman will somehow begin questioning members of the underworld and ultimately expose just who has caused the disappearance of the union leader. Newman’s mad as hell and wants to know who she got the story from. The damage is done. His liquor exporting business is suffering and now the union has pulled his dock workers. The finger of public opinion is squarely pointed at him as the guilty party.

Sally Field + Paul Newman is bound to equal romance. Despite their differences there’s going to be a flirtation between the two that may not get past the fact that they’re both digging for the truth. Is she to believe in his innocence and is he to trust her constant questions. Are they on or off the record? When Melinda Dillon appears as a fragile friend of Newman’s who can clear his name with a rock solid alibi, it’ll cost her far more than Field could have ever imagined if she publishes the story. For her dynamic turn here, Miss Dillon received an Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

When Dillon’s story goes bad Newman has had enough and wants his pound of flesh. Two can play the game of setting someone up in the public’s court of opinion and when he discovers the reasons why and just who leaked the supposed story to Field in the first place, he sets in motion an ingeniously plotted revenge.

Cue the line from the movie’s trailer, “She writes the story that sets him up. He writes the book on getting even.”

One shouldn’t be surprised that this proved to be a first rate film with an explosive cast considering it’s directed by Sidney Pollack. A fact that gave me pause to wonder if it was first offered to Pollack’s long time leading man, Robert Redford. Of course the Redford-Newman association should need no explaining to classic films fans. But then, I’ve read that Al Pacino was at one time attached the role so maybe not.

There’s another name I need to throw in to the mix and I’m having a hard time facing what might very well be the truth. That Paul Newman has the film stolen right out from under him at the 93 minute mark to the end which clocks in at 116 minutes.  Such is the power of Wilford Brimley’s no nonsense U.S. Attorney General sent in to rectify the embarrassing public spat and accusations between Balaban and his higher up, Don Hood. All set in motion by the revenge seeking Newman.

Brimley is one of those classic character actors who never looks to be acting in the mold of a Slim Pickens or maybe a Strother Martin. He brings a severe case of authority to his elongated cameo and it’s a shame the Academy never bothered to notice. He’s got some great lines under that walrus mustache as he goes about breaking things down….

“Now we’ll talk all day if you want to. But, come sundown, there’s gonna be two things true that ain’t true now. One is that the United States Department of Justice is goin’ to know what in the good Christ – e’scuse me, Angie – is goin’ on around here. And the other’s I’m gonna have somebody’s ass in muh briefcase.” …. “You had a leak? You call what’s goin’ on around here a leak? Boy, the last time there was a leak like this, Noah built hisself a boat. We can’t have people go around leaking stuff for their own reasons. It ain’t legal. And worse than that, by God it ain’t right.”

Going back to the release of this film, Brimley was fast becoming an in demand character player. While he was around in the 70’s the way I remember it is he suddenly appeared on scene in The China Syndrome (saw it on a field trip with my grade school class) opposite Jack Lemmon and saw his career take off in his late 40’s. Brubaker, Electric Horseman, Borderline, Tender Mercies, Cocoon, Act of Vengeance and of course The Thing all followed in quick succession.

But back to the star power of Paul Newman and Sally Field. Sure it’s Newman’s film but let’s not forget Sally either. A good role for the bubbly girl next door from those Burt Reynolds racing car flicks that I came to know her from. This was Newman’s fifth nomination in the acting category and he’d follow up with another Oscar worthy performance in The Verdict that wasn’t meant to be.

Again if you’re only aware of the so called Newman classics we all to often focus on then maybe you’re like me and have let this one slip through the cracks. Do yourself a favor and give it another look or maybe a first. It’ll remind you of just how Paul Newman could command the screen when given a vehicle worthy of his talents. It should be easy to locate on DVD if you take me up on the suggestion and who knows, maybe you can even locate an original one sheet to go with it.

6 Comments »

  1. I’ve loved this film since I first saw it in ‘81. Thanks for the reminder how good it is and I can only echo your thoughts on Brimley. Love that quote from him about two things being true that ain’t true now!

  2. Yes, I remember that poster well…saw this one at my local theater back in ’81. Sad for me to think that back then, Newman and Field – along with certain character actors such as Brimley – would appear in new movies all the time…you’d just expect to see them once or twice a year. Now, of course, we’ll never see new movies from a lot of these stars again. Unless, of course, you find one from the past you haven’t seen…THEN it’s new. Which, thankfully, there are still so many ‘new to me’ movies still out there for me to find and enjoy. And I have no memory of Melinda Dillon being in this movie…a ‘Slap Shot’ connection with Newman AND an Oscar nomination!

    • I always subscribe to the thought that if I haven’t seen it then it’s not old. I was going to mention Dillon was the abused wife of Hammerhan that Paul sleeps with and then uses his insider Intel to drive him insane. No back up goalie and the Chiefs win

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