Absence of Malice (1981) – A Movie Review

Absence of Malice is a film that explores the way federal law enforcement and the media can conspire to libel individuals they want to harass.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Paul Newman is Mike Gallagher a liquor wholesaler in Miami.  He’s also the son of a former bootlegger.  And because of his social connections through his father the Justice Department is intent on having him provide evidence on a murder case that they are convinced was a mob hit.

Prosecutor Elliot Rosen conspires to convince newspaper reporter Megan Carter (played by Sally Field) that the FBI has evidence that Gallagher was responsible for the murder.  She publishes a front-page story to that effect and Mike’s life starts falling apart.  The longshoreman’s union boycotts his business because the murdered man was a member of their union.  Then Mike finds himself followed around by organized crime henchmen who fear he will turn on them.

Mike goes to Megan’s office and demands to know who told her that he was a murderer.  She refuses on the grounds that it’s privileged information.  But she’s interested in Mike and begins an odd relationship with him.  She meets a friend of Mike’s named Teresa Perrone who can vouch for the fact that Mike was out of town with her when the murder occurred.  While checking on Teresa’s story she discovers that Teresa was out of town to have an abortion.  And Teresa is a practicing Catholic and works for the Catholic Church so the abortion is a source of great shame to her.

Megan’s boss convinces her to include the abortion as part of the story that she writes on Mike.  Reading the story, Teresa commits suicide out of the shame she feels for the abortion being revealed.  Mike is enraged at the betrayal that Megan committed against Teresa and when Megan comes to apologize, he roughs her up.  She gives Elliot Rosen’s name to Mike to atone for her betrayal.

Using the information that Megan gave him Mike begins a deception of his own.  He contacts Rosen’s boss District Attorney James Quinn and convinces him that if Quinn gives a public exoneration of him then Mike will provide him with all the information on the mob hit.  But when Rosen sees what’s going on he assumes Quinn has been bribed by Mike and begins an unauthorized and illegal investigation of both of them.  Mike feeds this false narrative by making anonymous donations to a charity that Rosen knows is affiliated with Quinn.

Finally, a friend of Megan’s in the FBI warns her to stay away from Mike because of an impending arrest of Quinn and Mike.  She then publishes a story of the false narrative and the Justice Department steps in.  Assistant Attorney General James Wells in charge of organized crime (played masterfully by Wilford Brimley) convenes an interview at which all the principals (Mike, Megan, Rosen and Quinn) are present and sorts through the mess.  He figures out that Mike has orchestrated this public relations disaster for both the government and the newspaper as revenge for their unscrupulous use of misinformation to libel him and try to force him to become a government informant.

Rosen and Quinn lose their jobs, Megan’s paper has to print an apology and retraction and Megan is chastened for her bad judgement.  At the end of the movie Mike and Megan meet and somewhat reconcile before he leaves Florida for some new stage in his life.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this movie.  Above and beyond the topicality to our time of FBI/Media collusion, the characterization of Mike as the wronged citizen strikes a very sympathetic chord that Newman pulls off perfectly.  This movie is almost unique in Hollywood history in not making the crusading reporters and G-men heroes.  Here the FBI are the bad guys harassing the little guy who is just trying to live his life.  The newspaper reporters are shown to be callous and without empathy for their subjects.  This is an excellent movie for our time.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – A Movie Review

I saw this in the movies with a buddy of mine when I was a kid.  It was the first modern western I had seen.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid actually were outlaws at the tail end of the Old West.  Played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford respectively, this pair are still holed up in Wyoming in 1898, robbing trains with their “Hole in the Wall Gang.”  But Union Pacific head, E. H. Harriman gets tired of the gang robbing his trains so he hires the best trackers and lawmen in the country to find and kill Butch and Sundance.  The pair are chased across the Southwest until finally cornered by the posse they have to jump off a cliff into a raging torrent to escape.

Figuring out that they’ll never escape Harriman’s men they decide to head down to Bolivia to steal gold from the miners.  They start robbing banks and mine payrolls until finally they stir up so much trouble that the federal troops organize an ambush and at a small town they’re set upon by a large company of police.  And while they are pinned down a military troop arrives complete with a cannon.  The movie ends with the pair wounded and desperate charging out into a fusillade of lead to their apparent deaths.

This is a revisionist western of the type that came out in the sixties and seventies with anti-hero protagonists and questionable morals.  So, if you’re more of a traditionalist this type of movie might not be your cup of tea.  But in my opinion, this is a highly entertaining film.  Newman and Redford are the quintessential bickering friends.  Newman’s Butch comes up with the wild schemes and Redford’s Sundance reluctantly backs him and bails them out with his unbelievable shooting skill.  I recommend it for the action and for the buddy comedy.

The Verdict (1982) – A Movie Review

The Verdict is a courtroom drama about a Boston lawyer, Frank Galvin (played by Paul Newman) who brings suit against the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, one of its hospitals and a world-renowned doctor who botched the anesthesia on a woman who was there to give birth.  The woman went into cardiac arrest, the baby died and she ended up in a permanent coma.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Galvin is currently an ambulance chaser who spends most of his time drinking.  Years earlier he had a brilliant career and was married to the daughter of a senior partner at a prestigious law firm.  But when he threatened to expose witness tampering by one of his colleagues, he was indicted on trumped up charges and his career and marriage disappeared.  Now years later his former mentor Mickey Morrissey (played by Jack Ward) throws him one last chance to pull his life out of the gutter.  He gives him the above-mentioned malpractice suit knowing that the Archdiocese will pay handsomely to hush up the criminal negligence.  And he hopes this financial success will give Galvin a chance to revive his law practice.

But when Galvin goes to the nursing home to take photographs of the comatose patient, he has a moment of conscience and decides that instead of settling the case out of court he will prosecute the doctor for negligence to get justice for the destruction of this woman’s life.  The woman’s sister and brother-in-law are enraged thinking Galvin is only interested in the larger settlement that a court case might yield and Morrissey is shocked at what he sees as the foolishness of throwing away a guaranteed $70,000 fee for accepting the settlement.  But Morrissey agrees to help Galvin with his court case.  Likewise, the judge in the case and the defense attorney Ed Concannon (played by James Mason) are astonished that Galvin is determined to go to court.  But Concannon has enormous resources as the head of a powerful and unscrupulous law firm.  He sets to work to destroy Galvin’s case.  He coerces the expert witness on anesthesia not to testify for Galvin and even plants a spy in Galvin’s life by paying a woman, Laura Fischer, who wanted to work for Concannon, to insinuate herself into Galvin’s life and even sleep with him in order to provide the defense team with the details of Galvin’s case.

And Concannon’s tactics work brilliantly.  Galvin’s case is hopelessly inconclusive and it seems inevitable that the jury will come up with a verdict of not-guilty.  The only possible hope is an OR nurse who refuses to testify for Concannon.  But she also refuses to help Galvin.  Her angry defensiveness leads Galvin to suspect she is protecting someone else and upon reviewing the employment records he guesses that Kaitlin Costello, the admitting nurse on that day, is the one being shielded.  Costello resigned shortly after the incident.  By some underhanded tricks Galvin finds Costello and convinces her to testify.  What we learn from her testimony is that the patient had eaten an hour before coming to the hospital and should not have been given anesthesia.  The doctor had worked on five difficult surgeries in a row and had made the mistake due to fatigue.  After the catastrophic injury to the patient the doctor threatened Costello to change the note concerning her pre-op meal from 1 hour to 9 hours by doctoring the admission record.  Costello refused and made a photocopy of the form just in case someone else doctored it.  And that was exactly what happened.

After this riveting testimony, Concannon raises an objection to the photocopied document which is sustained by the judge and then raises an objection to the testimony based on its lack of credibility without the photocopy.  The judge sustains this also and advises the jury not to credit any of the testimony.  But obviously the jury cannot unhear such damning evidence and they find for the plaintiff.

The plot of this movie doesn’t sound very extraordinary when narrated as a synopsis as I have just done above.  But the acting by the principal cast is extremely well done.  I especially enjoyed James Mason’s work as Concannon.  The way he portrays the Boston Brahmin lawyer and his staff rings true.  But the whole cast is strong.  David Mamet wrote a very lively script.  I would say this is easily among Paul Newman’s best films, right up there with The Sting.  I highly recommend this film.

OCF Classic Movie Reviews – The Sting

Can a movie made in 1973 be a classic?  Hell yeah!  The Sting, to my mind, is one of the last identifiable big studio system type movies.  Everything about it exudes quality.  The cinematography, music, actors, sets, sound and script show attention to detail and professionalism.  The only thing that sets it apart from earlier productions is a little profanity that wouldn’t have gotten past the Hayes Code censors of twenty years earlier.

The plot is grifters versus mobsters in 1930s Chicago.  Revenge for a murdered grifter has the two stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford partnering to orchestrate a “big con” against a vicious mobster played by Robert Shaw.  Supporting cast includes Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan and a host of familiar faces.  George Roy Hill directed it and the ragtime music of Scott Joplin suffuses it from beginning to end and reinforces the feeling that you are immersed in an earlier era.  I cannot think of a false note in the whole movie.  Newman is at his best.  Redford is very good and Shaw chews up the scenery with his best Irish gangster characterization.  His mannerisms are fantastic.  One of his best bits has one of his henchmen asking if it’s worthwhile hunting down the grifters who stole such a small amount of his money.  Shaw’s on a golf course and he points to another golfer and says to the hitman, “Ya see that fella?  He and I went to fifth grade together.  If he finds out that a two-bit grifter got away with stealing from me I’m gonna have to have you kill him and every other small timer from here to Atlantic City.  Yafalla (which means do you follow)?

The plot is intricate involving Newman’s crew of con-men, Shaw’s gang, hired hitmen from out of town, local police and even FBI agents after Newman.  There are twists, turns and surprises.  The movie combines comedy, action and some drama in a fast-paced and highly entertaining way.  It’s an homage to the gangster movies of the 1930s that feels like it could have been written by O’Henry or Ring Lardner.  But there’s a modern feel to the pessimistic tone of the ending.  When Newman asks Redford what he’ll do with his cut, he says he doesn’t want it.  “I’d only lose it anyway.”

Give it a try if you’ve never seen it.  Highly recommended.