Thursday, December 3, 2009

Absence of Malice (And More)

Slowly but surely, we’re easing back into our weekly movie watching routine. This past weekend’s choice was Absence of Malice, a 1981 release starring Paul Newman and Sally Field.

Newman plays Michael Gallagher, a liquor distributor whose father was mobbed up; his uncle is head man in Miami. When the investigation into the disappearance of a union organizer goes nowhere, the Feds lean on Michael, hoping he’ll use his underworld contacts to help them out. To speed this along, knowledge of the investigation is leaked to an eager young reporter (Field). The resulting article essentially ruins Gallagher’s business, and the life of a close friend who tries to help.

The point of the movie is the balance of freedom of the press, its use and abuse by the government, and how people can be ground up by the interactions of institutions that are ostensibly there to serve them. Newman is excellent (his performance was nominated for an Oscar), playing Michael as a hands-on businessman who wants only to be left alone. He has nothing to do with the family’s other business, yet it’s clear he loves his uncle and wouldn’t do anything to hurt him, even if the threat of sleeping with the fishes wasn’t real. His decision to take action on his own makes sense, and the scheme he comes up with is clever and believable. He wants Field’s reporter to believe and trust him, but on his terms. It’s a better performance than The Color of Money, for which he won his lone Oscar. (For the record, Henry Fonda won that year for his farewell performance in On Golden Pond.)

Newman’s in good company. Sally Field was nominated for a Golden Globe, and Melinda Dillon was nominated for an Oscar in a supporting role as Michael’s friend. Still, for all its strengths, the movie is stolen by a ten-minute performance at the end by Wilford Brimley as Assistant Attorney General James Wells. (The role was essentially reprised in his appearance as Postmaster General in Seinfeld.) Rarely can an actor make a movie his own in what is essentially a cameo performance; the best other example that comes to mind Donald Sutherland’s work as the arsonist in Backdraft.

Absence of Malice is worth watching just for Brimley alone, though it would still be worth it had he not appeared. Highly recommended.


My parents came to spend the holiday, so we watched several movies last week. Among them was Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. I only caught the last 45 minutes, and we all know Hitchcock was a genius, but this movie stank on ice. There were enough unbelievable plot holes in what I saw to sink a battleship. I won’t go into detail here, but the whole conceit of the picture, that their kidnapped child can hear Doris Day singing, even though he appears to be about half a mile away in the embassy building, then be found because Jimmy Stewart pinpoints his whistling—portrayed as phantasmagoric echoes in the soundtrack—is enough to put one off of Hitchcock forever, or at least until Rear Window is on again.


Mike Dennis said...

Good review of "Absence Of Malice", Dana. It's a movie that's verging on forgotten, and one that should always be remembered for its portrayal of journalistic arrogance.

Another movie where a cameo registers is Alec Baldwin's five-minute scene in "Glengarry Glen Ross". I never cared for him before this movie, but he made me like him with a fierce portrayal of a motivational speaker.

Had it not been for powerhouse performances by the rest of the hand-picked cast (Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, all of whom were at the top of their game), Baldwin would have easily stolen the entire film. As it is, he stood out in a crowd of giants.

Dana King said...


How could I forget Glengarry Glen Ross!!! One of my favorite movie lines is, "Second prize: Steak knives." And my wife and I sometimes begin conversations with, "Put that coffee down."

Thanks for reminding me, Mike.

Charlieopera said...

Ah, Glen Garry ... I saw it on Broadway way back in the day (with Montegna) ... great play and the movie did it justice. One of Mamet's bestist.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I just saw there was an even earlier version of THE MAN than the ones I was familiar with. From the early thirties.

Dana King said...

Hitchcock did the earlier one, too. Said it was the work of an amateur, but the 1956 version is the work of a professional. I can't imagine what the 30s version must have been like.