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Pollack: Absence of Malice (1981)

Absence of Malice is one of the few procedurals in Sydney Pollack’s career, which is a bit unusual, since Pollack’s directorial touch is quite procedural, less invested in narrative than in the brooding spaces between narrative that make the best procedurals so atmospheric. In this film, that’s particularly clear, just because it’s structured as a series of mysteries that are continually deflected or diverted, to the point where it’s not finally about the story so much as what the story might have been. And that’s especially appropriate for a journalistic procedural, a film about what constitutes proper journalism, with Sally Field playing a day reporter for the Miami Tribune who starts to investigate a local business official, played by Paul Newman, after she receives a leak from a federal prosector, played by Bob Balaban, that he may be involved in the disappearance of a local longshoreman union official. What ensues plays out as a cat-and-mouse game in which Field’s efforts to ascertain Newman’s complicity produce some wonderfully ambiguous and ambivalent scenes of the kind that Newman does so well, set against a sun-saturated film soleil backdrop that makes it feel as if Field is always squinting just to meet his gaze, especially in a fantastic scene in which he takes her out for a boat ride on Biscayne Bay, surrounding by dazzling water in all direction. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the film doesn’t quite maintain that ambiguity, devolving into a more traditional expose of reckless journalism – capped by a fairly heavy-handed monologue by Wilfred Brimley who steps in at the eleventh hour as an Assistant Attorney General flown down to tie up loose ends – and, worse, a romance between Field and Newman that is not only fairly implausible but actually tends to undo the mercurial dynamic that they share before they suddenly start dating. At the same time, the mystery of the longshoreman union is put to one side, as is the general hostility on the part of local businessman towards unionisation, and yet Pollack’s sense of hush, and the deftness with which he deals with pregnant voids, is almost at its strongest on the few occasions when the film visits abandoned working environments, spaces left behind by workers in the wake of this disappearance that is never even clarified as a homicide. Even more than film noir, film soleil depends on the sense of something unmentionable hiding in plain sight, and in all his forays along the Miami Shore, it feels as if this other story is still buried somewhere deep within Pollack’s tracking-shots – within his very vision of Miami itself, which gradually feels like a city on strike more than a city on holiday  – even as the story becomes progressively less and less local, less and less soleil, concluding with a miniature courtroom drama that seems more attuned to Sidney Lumet’s New York than the bleachy, beachy palette of the preceding couple of hours. In that sense, it’s very much a film in which the direction and story are at odds, or at least in a kind of productive tension, although that just makes the moments when Lumet’s languorous atmospherics manage to peek through the cracks all the more exhilarating.

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