Follow TV Tropes


Film / Absence of Malice

Go To

Absence of Malice is a 1981 American neo-noir drama film directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Paul Newman and Sally Field.

The life of Miami liquor distributor Michael Gallagher (Newman) unravels after a newspaper story falsely implicating him in a murder is written by reporter Megan Carter (Field), who has read it from a file left intentionally on the desktop of federal prosecutor Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban). As it turns out, Rosen is doing a bogus investigation and has leaked it with the purpose of squeezing Gallagher for information.

The movie also stars Melinda Dillon, Luther Adler, Barry Primus, Josef Sommer, and Wilford Brimley.

It was released on December 18, 1981.


Tropes for the film:

  • Armor-Piercing Question: When Wells, the assistant U.S. Attorney General investigating the entire mess, says to Gallagher, "Don't get too smart.":
    Gallagher: Everybody in this room is smart, and everybody was just doing their job, and Teresa Perrone is dead. Who do I see about that?
    Wells: (Beat) Ain't nobody to see. I wish there was.
  • Badass Bureaucrat: Assistant U.S. Attorney General James Wells shows up at the end of the movie, gathers everyone together for an investigation into everything that's been going on. Within about ten minutes, he quickly gets the truth out of everyone with a mixture of threats and deductive reasoning before firing Rosen for causing the whole mess.
  • The Chessmaster: After Theresa kills herself, Gallagher agrees to become Quinn's informant if Quinn publicly refutes the accusations against him. Then he makes a donation to a charity Quinn is involved in, knowing that Rosen will think that he bribed Quinn and launch another investigation that will bring down Quinn and get the proper authorities looking closely at Rosen's role in starting the mess.
  • Advertisement:
  • Convicted by Public Opinion: The whole point as Michael Gallagher's entire life is ruined because an anonymous tipster's claim that he's involved in a current murder gets published in the newspapers.
  • Driven to Suicide: Teresa, Gallagher's close friend, tells Megan Gallagher couldn't have been involved in the crime he's accused of because he took her, Teresa, to a place where she could get an abortion, but she doesn't want that to be published because Good Girls Avoid Abortion. When Megan publishes it anyway, Teresa kills herself.
  • Evil Parents Want Good Kids: Gallagher had a father who was a bootlegger. After being caught by his father in doing something illegal his father locked him up in a cabin for a period of time. However the purpose wasn't to necessarily prevent the son from being bad just showing what he should get used to if he goes into a life of crime.
  • Ominous Legal Phrase Title: From U.S. libel law, Post-Sullivan v. New York Times: A public figure suing must show that whoever said the bad and false thing about them did so with "actual malice", i.e., they either knew it wasn't true or were recklessly negligent in determining whether it was.
  • Stepping Out for a Quick Cup of Coffee: Done as the DA, Elliott Rosen, tells his secretary to wait for five minutes into his meeting with a reporter, then call him. During his meeting with Megan, he casually mentions that the information is in the folder he's holding, but that he can't show her the file. When he gets the call from his secretary, he steps out of the office, leaving the report sitting on his desk. Megan, still in the office, takes the bait and reads the contents of the folder. Her paper runs the story the next day, which is exactly what the District Attorney wanted.
  • The Unsolved Mystery: The disappearance and probable murder of union official Joey Diaz acts as a Plot-Triggering Death, but his fate is never revealed. Michael Gallagher, who is falsely implicated in Diaz's death, chooses to force the authorities to make a statement clearing him rather than try to solve the case. Gallagher's mobster uncle does seem riled up by the investigation, but his involvement isn't confirmed.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Gallagher does this to Megan after she publishes the story that leads Teresa to kill herself.
    Gallagher: Couldn't you see what it was to her? Couldn't you stop scribbling for a second and just put down your goddamn ball point pen? Didn't you see her?
  • Would Hit a Girl: Gallagher ends up tearing Megan's blouse after her story leads to Teresa killing herself.