In the early 1970’s, then New York Governor Huge Carey appointed a state special prosecutor to investigate judiciary corruption known to be running rampant within the state. The man selected was Maurice Nadjari. He was looked at as a warrior, a lone wolf, a white knight hero going up against a corrupt system. And at the time in New York there was plenty of corruption to go around. Nadjari began to indict one judge after another.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to the courtroom. Every case, every indictment was dismissed. Why? Illegal wire taps, improperly leaked information and testimony that was inaccurate. The judges’ careers, though never convicted of any crime, were ruined. When anyone questioned Nadjari about his methods he accused the accusers of being part of the corrupt system.
Screenwriter Kurt Luedtke, a former editor of the Detroit Free Press, may or may not have used Nadjari as a source for Bob Balaban’s special prosecutor, Eliot Rosen, but there is an uncanny resemblance in the ruthless no holds bar approach. That said, government corruption and underhanded investigative techniques by the law are just part of the story. The real focus of Absence of Malice is on truth and ethics in journalism. What is the nature of of truth? How important are ethics? What is the responsibility of the press to print the truth and be responsible in their reporting?
I recently watched a little know film called, Tell No Tales (1932). It’s not very good, but it drives early on the point of ethics. It’s central to the soul of the main character, portrayed by Melvyn Douglas, and the film. Douglas is the editor of an honest, principled newspaper that has recently been acquired by a mogul whose motive is to shut down the Douglas run paper so his other newspaper, a scandalous, sensationalistic, gutter feeding rag can increase its circulation. The mogul offers Douglas a job with the rag. He turns it down instead wanting to continue to pursue the truth in a story he is investigating. Megan Carter, (Sally Field) and other reporters on her paper, The Evening Standard, pushed aside this kind of mandatory integrity, intelligence and resolve. No double checking of their sources. Just print the news whether it’s accurate or not. Whether innocent people are hurt or not.
Luedtke’s script deals with Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), a legitimate wholesaler of liquor. He is also the son of a former Miami underworld figure. Because of the family link, Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban), a special prosecutor sets his sights on Gallagher as a source of information on the recent disappearance and potential murder of union leader Joey Diaz. Though he has no evidence of Gallagher being involved, Rosen, manipulates Megan Carter (Sally Field), an investigative reporter for The Evening Standard, into writing an incriminating story revealing Gallagher as a prime suspect in the murder. When Gallagher comes to Megan’s office to find out who was the source of her information, like a good reporter, she refuses to name names. As the prosecutor’s investigation continues, Gallagher’s business falls apart when union officials pull their workers off the job because of the investigation and possible involvement in the disappearance/ murder of Diaz. Then there is Theresa Peron (Melinda Dillon), a longtime friend of Gallagher’s. She comes to Megan telling her there is no way Gallagher could have murdered Diaz. She can prove it. He was with her. He took her on a trip out of town, she tells Megan. When Megan ask where? Theresa is reluctant to admit where but finally confesses it was to get an abortion. Peron, a devout Catholic, pleas with Megan to keep the abortion secret. She does not want it printed. Megan’s tells her that without printing the reason there is no story. Despite Peron’s pleas, and with the insistence of her editor, Megan prints the story anyway. When the paper comes out. Theresa reads it and, in a desperate panic, runs across her neighbors’ properties grabbing up as many papers as she can. Soon after, she commits suicide. Feeling guilty over Theresa’s death, Megan goes to Gallagher to apologize. Incensed, Gallagher physically attacks her. With nothing left to lose, Gallagher sets up an elaborate plan of revenge.
Paul Newman got the role after Al Pacino backed out. Newman was primed for this part partially due to some recent battles with the news media, particularly with the New York Post, then owned by Rupert Murdock, among other outlets.
The film reflects the underside of the media business; poor reporting, lack of morality and ethics. It’s a mirror reflecting the opposite side of the coin to ethical and distinguished investigative journalism like we saw in All the President’s Men (1976). Sally Field’s Megan Carter is a poor reporter. She puts out a story lacking in solid information and moral recourse. She was irresponsible with the motives of Eliot Rosen, her source. His was a self-serving plan leaving his file on Gallagher out on his desk purposely while he stepped outside of the office. He used her. She didn’t care about the effects of what she writes has on people. There is no soul searching. Oh yeah, she also sleeps with her subject. Talk about conflict of interests.
Sydney Pollack was the kind of director who attempted to balance Hollywood commercialism and meaningful message films, sometime successfully (Three Days of the Condor (1975), Tootsie (1982), They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969)), sometimes not (The Way We Were (1973)). That attempt at balance is what weakens this film. The ending is particularly troubling offering a possible romantic reconnection between the two leads sometime in the future. This false ending was added in after a test screening when audiences complained about the original ending where Gallagher and Megan did not get together.
If the newspaper office looks real that’s because director Sydney Pollack and company used the offices of the Miami Herald for their fictional Evening Standard. The script was originally set in Detroit where, as mentioned earlier, Luedtke worked for the Detroit Free Press. Pollack and company wanted warmer waters and the location was changed to Miami. In earlier days, in his career as a reporter, Luedtke also worked for the Miami Herald. Other Miami locations included the waterfront docks and downtown area. It’s pretty nondescript, almost as if it could have filmed anywhere. Authors Susan Doll and David Morrow suggest this might have been intentional on the filmmakers’ part suggesting that what happened could have happened anywhere. 
 Lawrence J. Quirk writes that Luedtke was inspired by Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee statement: We don’t print the truth, we print what people tell us.” – Paul Newman, Taylor Publishing Co., Dallas, Pg. 271
2] Levy, Shawn, Paul Newman: A Life, Harmony Books, New York, 2009, Pgs. 238-239
 Doll, Susan & Morrow, David, Florida on Film, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2007, Pg. 121
Can’t remember if I’ve seen this or not, but now I have too. Great review.
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Thanks. An interesting film.
Though I wasn’t especially fond of this film when I first saw it, I might reassess it today in light of the sloppy journalism promulgated by the Internet and the age-old need to be the first media outlet to report the news. I recall liking Newman as Gallagher. Based on your review, I think I need to check it out again.
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