Absence of Malice – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

Last up was A New Kind of Love, which featured the old kind of misogyny.

The Choice

Funnily enough we actually took a week off from CRFC to cleanse our palates after A New Kind of Love. We watched most of Meatballs, starring Bill Murray. It was bloody awful, but as it wasn’t a part of CRFC it kind of did the job and I was looking forward to Newman again. It was Tim’s turn to pick, and he went straight for Absence of Malice without much dilly dallying.

Malice 01

Absence of Malice and me

It’s another Newman film I hadn’t heard of prior to combing through his filmography for this. I keep almost calling it Absolute Power, but that’s a Clint Eastward film we watched during Gene Hackman season. From a very brief look at the IMDb page for Absence of Malice I was also put in mind of The Verdict which we watched a few weeks ago. Neither particularly set me on fire but they were both solid enough. So I went in expecting some kind of grizzled legal thriller.

IMDb says

Absence of Malice (1981): When a prosecutor leaks a false story that a liquor warehouse owner is involved in the murder of a union head, the man’s life begins to unravel. 6.9 stars.

I says

This wasn’t really anything like either Absolute Power or The Verdict in the end, but similarly solid enough. Where I was most wrong was that the thrust of the film isn’t about a legal battle. As the IMDb blurb suggests, Newman’s liquor importer is tagged as being of interest in a murder inquiry because the feds think he knows people who know people. They’re putting the squeeze on. But the meat of the film is about the leak itself. The story appears in the press, with Sally Field’s reporter the patsy who fell for the feds’ leak. Newman wants to know her source, but her journalistic integrity means she won’t say. As Newman’s business is affected and his best friend has her darkest secret dragged through the press he comes up with a way of getting back at all those involved.


Malice 02

There’s a plucky reporter if ever I saw one

These days films that revolve around the press tend to be positive – the reporters in Spotlight are the heroes, The Post is all about the triumph of journalistic integrity in the face of political pressure. It makes sense in a time of unprecedented (in my lifetime at least) assault on the free press by authoritarians the world over. But of course there are many problematic elements of a free press – look at what’s going on at the moment with the weird sustained campaign against Meghan. Paul Newman apparently had his fair share of false stories – he seemed gleeful that this film was sticking it to the press, saying, “I enjoyed kicking the beejeezus out of the press in Absence of Malice.” His view was clearly from his own borne of his personal experience: “I would say that 90% of what people read about me in the newspapers is untrue. Ninety percent is garbage. [Reporters] are expected to come up with something sensational every night of the week to keep their readers’ noses buried in the pages, and, well, you tell me. If nothing’s happening, what do you do? Well, in their case, they make it up.”

Malice 03


Sally Field and Paul Newman make an engaging pair to pin the film around, and it’s a nice surprise to see Bob Balaban in something other than a comedy. It’s all pretty good, if not scintillating stuff. We’ve seen a few Sidney Pollack films in CRFC; Tootsie’s been the best of the bunch, but this sits nicely alongside Jeremiah Johnson, Three Days of the Condor and The Firm.

Malice 4

Serious Balaban


The very best thing about this film is the story about Newman and Pollack during filming. Both fancied themselves gourmet chefs (only one has a salad dressing line, mind) and so pretty much every night they’d have a cook-off, with Sally Field judging. After a little while she got fed up with all the rich food and just craved hamburgers.

Oh wait, no, the best thing about this film is Wilford Brimley turning up in the last quarter and stealing the film out from everyone else.

Malice 5

Wanted for scene stealing

The Verdict

Decent stuff, but if you’re looking for a brilliant exploration of the press you can’t go wrong with the final season of The Wire. Funnily enough both this and The Wire were written by former journos, so expect a ring of authenticity at least.

Coming Attractions

It does feel like we’re coming towards the end of Paul Newman season. It’s the longest one we’ve done, and while there are still a fair few that are at least a little tempting, perhaps it’s time to move on. Of 56 eligible films, we’ve seen (or decided we don’t need to rewatch) 28. Half way! The Color of Money will be the last film we tackle before moving on to Tom Cruise season. Will I pick that? Or should we rewatch the Coen Brothers’ wonderful The Hudsucker Proxy first? We’ll have to wait and see…


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