Written by former journalist Kurt Luedtke, Sydney Pollack’s controversial drama Absence of Malice is a splendidly disturbing examination of the power of the press to do irreparable harm. Sally Field plays Megan Carter, a young, up-and-coming news writer for a widely read Miami newspaper. While gathering information on the most recent police beats, she’s called into the office of Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) head of a federal “strike force.” He wants to spread the word about a case he’s working on. Since he’s not allowed to publicly talk about it, he purposefully places the file on his desk and leaves the room so she can “discover it on her own.”

Absence of MaliceA local longshoreman labor leader has been missing for six months. According to the file, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), the Florida businessman, liquor distributor, and son of dead mobster Tommy Gallagher, is under a federal investigation as a key suspect in the case. Rosen believes he’ll be able to smoke out Michael when he makes contact with his father’s mobsters friends in an effort to clear his name.

Without conducting any fact checking or corroborating with another source, Megan gives into the pressure of her editor (Josef Sommer) to run with the story. After all, under the Absence of Malice rule for slander, Gallagher can’t sue. Nonetheless, the slanderous story has made Michael’s life very difficult. Michael’s father kept him out of the rackets, and he’s been clean his entire life. Michael must soothe the fears of longtime friend Teresa Perrone (Melinda Dillon). A teacher in a Catholic school, she admitted to Megan she had an abortion in Atlanta—with Michael’s help—during the time the labor leader disappeared. Megan behaves abominably, both professionally and personally, printing the story despite Teresa’s pleas that doing that will absolutely ruin her.

As Michael Gallagher, Newman is at his best in a role he has played throughout his career: The macho, alienated loner (he played similar roles in Hud, The Hustler, Fort Apache, and others). Though this role was originally intended for Al Pacino, Newman excels here as the wronged businessman who gets his final revenge. Unfortunately, his performance didn’t get its deserved recognition because of controversy surrounding some of the issues stirred up by the film.

There’s little doubt that some viewers might be turned off by the role played here by Sally Field. Her Megan Carter is not only irresponsible but also not very bright. It’s little wonder that some have criticized the movie’s attack on female reporters as a result of the clumsy, seductive, and manipulative conduct of Sally Field’s character.

Receiving her second Supporting Oscar nomination, Melinda Dillon is particularly moving in the unforgettable scenes just before she commits suicide, when she scampers across the lawns near her house, pathetically trying to pick up all the papers that reveal her abortion. It’s one of those scenes where a picture truly speaks louder than one thousand words ever could.

Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 that reflects Owen Roizman’s subdued, low-light cinematography accurately, this 1080p transfer does have noticeable grain, but primary colors remain fairly fresh. Fine details are easy to discern. Contrast is decent; blacks are fairly deep but not crushed. This isn’t reference quality stuff, but a definite upgrade from the standard DVD.

The film’s mono soundtrack is presented as a 2.0 LPCM track, not DTS-HD MA as the case suggests. It’s a serviceable track that handles Dave Grusin’s score and the boxy mono dialogue well enough. It’s not going to push the limits of  speaker setups, but there is nothing objectionable about it. I couldn’t discern any stereo activity whatsoever.

English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.

The following special features are included:

  • Deleted Scene (SD; 1.85:1, non-enhanced; 1:02): A short scene between Gallagher and his banker, as Gallagher’s wholesale liquor business struggles.
  • The Story Behind Absence of Malice (SD; 1.78:1, non-enhanced; 31:04): Produced and directed by Charles Kiselyak, this featurette is a series of interviews with Pollack, Newman, Field and Luedtke about the film, its development, its themes and the experience of making it.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD; 1:85; 2:03): An effective and accurate promotion.