Archive for the ‘1980s films’ Tag

Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Io: Outland (1981)   8 comments

On a mining colony on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, workers are acting strangely. They go outside the space station without spacesuits and cut their own air hoses and generally explode, spilling their guts all over. Is this a strange new space hobby? Why are they doing this?

Enter Marshall William T. O’Niel (Sean Connery), the new sheriff in town. O’Niel has just arrived at his new duty station with his wife and son. None of them is overjoyed with this new assignment, but O’Niel sucks it up and begins to learn about his new job. As soon as he heads off to work, O’Niel’s wife and kid hot foot it off planet and head back to Earth. So much for family.


“Yeah, dad can’t make it.”

Right off the bat, O’Niel gets the message from the mine’s general manager, Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle) that since the miners work so hard, they also play hard in the bar and the company brothel and it’d be best if O’Niel looked the other way. O’Niel is not amused.


“I am not amused.”

When a miner (Steven Berkoff) goes on a tear and holes up in one of the leisure (read brothel) cells, threatening a prostitute with a knife, O’Niel and his men, including Sergeant Montone (the underrated James B. Sikking) arrive on the scene. The hostage situation goes a bit pear-shaped, but the ensuing autopsy shows the miner was on a powerful synthetic narcotic, polydichloric ethylene (PDE). Since Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), who performed the analysis, assures O’Niel the colony lacks the facilities to manufacture PDE, it’s clear someone is smuggling it in. A bit of research leads O’Niel to the two men who must be in cahoots with the smugglers.


“Avoid spikes. This is my favorite part.”

Now the fun really begins. Since the whole compound is wired for camera and sound, O’Niel surveils the two suspected drug runners and catches them in the act. He wants to question them to find out who’s behind the operation, but things go poorly for the pushers. He confronts Sheppard with the news that he’s seized and destroyed the contraband, knowing Sheppard will have to call his superiors and retaliate. Now O’Niel is the target.

Peter Hyams wrote and directed Outland as a futuristic western. It’s High Noon in space. In Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 film. High Noon, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) tries in vain to get the townspeople to help him defend against an outlaw with a grudge who will arrive on the noon train. In Outland, Connery’s O’Niel fails to get any of the locals to help him fight off two hired killers, expected on the regularly-scheduled space shuttle. In both films, the directors ramp up the tension by showing shots of clocks to highlight the approach of the bad guys. The only difference is in Outland, the clocks are digital. Both directors also offer their heroes help from the women in their lives. In High Noon, Katy Jurado and Grace Kelly come to Cooper’s aid. In Outland, Frances Sternhagen’s wreck of a doctor (her words), serves as Connery’s only ally.


“Think it over.”

The sets in Outland are like the air-lock connected hallways in the 1979 film, Alien. They also have that same industrial look. The bar is a bit wilder, with it’s neon lights and nude performance artists. The club does nod to the western with its swinging saloon doors though and it works. Hyams is an artist and he dabs the dark sets with pops of color to accentuate certain features, like the huge digital clock counting down the arrival of the hit men. There are also stunning shots of Connery walking outside the structure in his space suit.


“One small step for—ah you know the rest.”

Peter Hyams directed a number of films, including The Presidio (1988), Narrow Margin (1990), and the space-centric films 2010 (1984) and Capricorn One (1977). He was also a painter and a jazz drummer, performing with Maynard Ferguson and Bill Evans at Birdland, the Newport Jazz Festival, and other prestigious venues.

Hyams adds a dose of paranoia and a mistrust of authority to many of his films, including Outland. The mining company, Con-Amalgamate, wants to boost production, so they dose the workers with powerful uppers that fry their brains, making them psychotic. They cover the deaths by jettisoning the bodies into space. Con-Amalgamate is also the company in Capricorn One that makes the faulty life support systems leading Hal Holbrook to devise his cunning plan.


“Is Kubrick here yet?”

I’m a big fan of Outland. I saw it in the theatre with my dad when it came out and it’s one of my favorite films from that era. We also saw The Long Riders the year before, so offbeat westerns must have been our thing at the time. I like the main characters a lot, too. Connery is terrific as O’Niel, a worn, but professional law enforcement officer who ticked off one too many superiors and wound up on Jupiter. He’s smart and resourceful. When he knows the hired killers are on their way, he prepares. He formulates a plan to compensate for his lack of help by closing airlocks, stashing weapons, and generally out thinking the criminals. He’s also lucky to have Sternhagen’s Dr. Lazarus on his side. She’s a joy in this. Sarcastic, self-deprecating, and smart as a whip, Lazarus makes a great partner. I wish she had more screen time.


“I’m unpleasant; I’m not stupid.”

There are a few oddities in this film. Sean Connery has a Scottish accent. Kika Markham, who plays his wife, is British. Nicholas Barnes, another British actor, plays their son, but speaks with an American accent. Why? Also, why does Connery have a shotgun in space? A shotgun blast might not be my first choice in a pressurized space cabin. That said, any film with Sean Connery busting baddies on an Io space station gets my vote.


“O’Niel. William T. O’Niel.”

I wrote this piece for the Outer Space on Film Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. She’s @debbievee on Twitter. Thanks for having me!

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Coup de Torchon (1981): Once Upon a Time in West Africa   Leave a comment

Lucien Cordier doesn’t have much of a home life. He sleepwalks through his days and sleeps alone at night, while his wife bunks with her “brother” in the next room. His work life is no better. Cordier serves as police chief in the nondescript town of Bourkassa, Senegal. He heads up the force, but we get the idea it’s not because he’s such a crackerjack cop, but because his superiors figured he’d be in nobody’s way out there. Oh, by the way, Bourkassa’s finest is also its only.


Cordier, fighting crime

Bullied by a couple of local pimps, cuckolded by his wife, and ridiculed by the white townspeople, Cordier begins to get headaches and nightmares so he seeks help from his superior stationed nearby, in a larger city. When a fellow policeman abuses him too, all bets are off.


“You’re under arrest.”

Philippe Noiret, who would later play the fatherly projectionist in Cinema Paradiso, does a great job in a part full of subtle changes. Without making any big dramatic noises, Noiret shows despair, longing, innocence, slyness, and more depth than we expect. He’s surrounded by a cast of solid character actors too. Stéphan Audan plays Cordier’s unfaithful wife, Huguette and Isabelle Huppert, his mistress, Rose. Eddy Mitchell is the weakest link, but even he’s appropriately sleazy as Huguette’s wimpy layabout lover, Nono. My favorites are Guy Marchand as Marcel, Cordier’s boss, and Irène Skobline as the teacher, Anne, who may be the only person in Cordier’s life who isn’t morally bankrupt. The fictional town of Bourkassa, Senegal is a character, too. With its streets of yellow dirt and indolent citizens, the village screams dead end. Director, Bertrand Tavernier and cinematographer, Pierre-William Glenn highlight the bleakness and searing heat of Bourkassa by letting the camera linger on the sweat-stained locals and the barren landscape.


“This’ll look great in the brochure.”

Coup de Torchon means something akin to clean slate, and refers to Cordier’s decision to eliminate any impediments to his own happiness and start fresh. Based on Jim Thompson’s 1964 novel, Pop. 1280, the film shifts the story’s location from the American South to West Africa. In the film, Cordier starts out like the Anthony Quinn character at the beginning of The Secret of Santa Vittoria—lazy and beaten down by life, and, like Quinn, becomes a kind of con man, giving his enemies just enough rope to hang themselves. He goes a bit farther than Quinn though and becomes less of a savior and more of an avenging angel by the end of the film. With aspects of the 1970 film, Le Boucher, which also stars Audan, thrown in as well, Coup de Torchon reminded me of quite a few films made before and after. I was picturing Michael Douglas in Falling Down the whole time because of Cordier’s disenchantment with life, along with his ‘taking out the trash’ mentality.


“If I kill everyone, who will make my lunch?”

I enjoyed Coup de Torchon. It’s not easy to find, but if you have access to the out-of-print Criterion version, watch it. Fun flick.

I recently had the chance to talk about Coup de Torchon and films in general with the folks from the Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast. They have a neat system, so I’ve included the following ratings. Pssst, here’s the link to the GGtMC podcast.

Make or break: The scene at the police station when Cordier recites his litany of complaints and we see Fête Nat, the poor black servant, mouth the words Cordier speaks as if to say, “I listen to this crap every day.”

MVT: The bleak village had ‘no future’ written all over it.

Score: 7.5/10

Inferno (1980)   1 comment

Location, location, location.


“I wonder where Steven Marcato lives.”

A beautiful woman, Rose (Irene Miracle) buys a book from an antiques dealer. She’s irresistibly drawn to the basement, as one is, and she searches for something (?) in the the surrealistic cellar, only to lose her keys in a flooded sub floor full of dead bodies.


“No way this place passes inspection.”

Cut to Rose’s brother, Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student living in Rome, who sees a sexy spirit petting a cat in class.


This is the most normal thing that happens in the film.

All through the film, people keep looking for, finding, and stealing The Three Mothers, a book dealing with witches living in cursed houses in Freiburg, Rome, and New York. I have no idea why. Apparently, having the book gives the reader some kind of power—like a Necronomicon Ex-Mortis or something. I can’t be sure. All I know is the search for the books led characters into some sketchy digs. First, there’s Rose in the cellar lagoon. Then, there’s Mark’s girlfriend who lives in the Rome house, who climbs down into the basement of a library and walks, voluntarily, into a dank room full of cauldrons boiling over high flames lorded over by a wizard-y guy. She manages to make it out of there without getting a face burn, but things don’t end well for her.


“Is this where you return the overdue books?”

Mark ends up traveling to New York to help his sister, who lives in the Big Apple branch of the coven’s real estate holdings. It’s a large building with about four gigantic apartments in it. Alida Valli runs the place and it’s clear she hired the same decorator who did the school in Suspiria. In the building, Mark meets the countess and separately, they search the bowels of the building because walking around in a scary place alone, unarmed, and wearing your best outfit is always a good plan. Also, it’s totally normal for a New York City apartment building to have a completely empty wing.


“It’s probably rent-controlled.”

Bad things happen to pretty much everyone in this film, but no one gets a worse deal than the antiques dealer, who sets out to drown some cats in a bag. He has a bad leg and walks with crutches so carrying the burlap sack full of cats is tough for him. *sad violin* Anyway, he trips on an animal he was attempting to kill and…I won’t spoil it, but it’s ghastly. I watched this in the theatre and oddly, the crowd was not on his side.


Anti-cat shop.

A scary witchlike individual who could use some moisturizer and a manicure, cruises around grabbing people and closing windows on their necks.


“You couldn’t have used a little Jergens?”

I’m all for that, but it was hard to discern a meaning from any of these goings-on. It might have helped if I spoke Italian or if the subtitles, apparently written by a drunk person unfamiliar with horror films, English, or words in general, made any sense at all. In fact, they became so convoluted, the theatre chose to skip the whole thing and just play the film without them. They told us about it beforehand, so we knew what we were in for. The film continues, people run away from the evil being, things catch fire, and before you know it, the film is over. Huzzah!


“Some paint and a light dusting and it’ll be fine.”

Dario Argento meant Inferno as a sequel to Suspiria, but he forgot he needed a story and just ran with it anyway.  Despite the shambolic plot, Inferno entertains. It’s nowhere near as good as Suspiria, but there are some original kills and the sets are gorgeous. Maurizio Garrone was part of the set decoration team on both films. I liked the crazy Dali-esque basements with precariously-balanced chairs and stuffed lizards strewn about. I half-expected to see a melting clock.


Nice gator.

Though not a fantastic film, Inferno is a good time. See it on the big screen if you can.


The Three Mothers: Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sorrows), Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears), and Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness).

Thus endeth the lesson.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)   1 comment

 

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Kirsty, Julia, and Pinhead are back!

Hellbound: Hellraiser II starts immediately after the first film ends. Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) wakes up in a mental hospital and tries to explain to doctors and the police why there’s so much blood at their house and everybody’s dead. Oddly, they’re not buying the cenobite story. Nutty Doctor Philip Channard (Kenneth Cranham), who interned with the Marquis de Sade, runs the sanitarium. He also has a wacky hobby. He collects puzzle boxes, phrenology diagrams, and spare body parts. Needless to say, he has a bangin’ social life. The doctor asks the police to bring a blood-soaked mattress from Kirsty’s crime scene house. Yep, it’s completely normal for law enforcement to hand evidence over to some guy who collects kinky dead people stuff. Anyway, the authorities bring Channard the nasty mattress and since he’s done extensive research on nasty mattress dead people retrieval, he knows what to do. Channard’s a sadistic bastard so he brings a highly delusional patient to his home, plops him down on the bloody mattress and waits for the magic to happen. It does. Julia (Clare Higgins), emerges from the depths and steals the poor schizophrenic’s guts and Channard’s heart. Well, maybe the heart is the wrong organ.

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“I’d walk through the gates of Hell for a good Chardonnay.”

Julia’s not ready to settle down, at least not until she gets a face. To that end, Dr. Channard drags his hopeless cases over to Julia so she can eat their innards and get some skin so they can consummate this affair.

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“Bring me the head of a manic depressive.”

Dr. Channard has been yearning for this kind of depravity his whole life. We see flashbacks to the doctor’s misspent youth as a torturer of small animals and scenes of him experimenting on patients. He’s not a right guy. Of course, by now, we all know Julia’s no prize either so the doctor had better watch his back.

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Breaking up is hard to do.

At the same time Dr. Channard and Julia are playing the balcony scene from Romeo and Dahmer, Kirsty and another patient, Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), battle with the cenobites in a weird Escher-like rampart opened by the puzzle box. Full of tortured souls, long hallways, and candles, the dungeon houses the cenobites, their victims, and Uncle Frank. Remember Frank (Sean Chapman) from the first Hellraiser film? He’s been lounging around Pinhead’s playhouse waiting for a little action.

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I think I had this calendar once.

There are a couple side stories too. Tiffany is a gifted puzzle-solver the evil doctor imprisoned in his asylum to help him open the box. She’s compelled to do puzzles of all kinds and instead of curing that compulsion, Channard encourages it.

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Cenobite Puzzle Boxes: You can’t stop at just one!

There’s also Kyle (William Hope), a young resident at the hospital, determined to help Kirsty.

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“Sooo then the guy with nails in his face showed up? Mmmkay.”

That’s when some major stuff goes down. Kirsty, Julia, Frank, Dr. Channard, and the cenobites act out And Then There Were None in the Escher drawing. It’s bloody and thrilling and full of cool, disgusting effects. Dr. Channard’s torture is downright ghastly.

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“Candy bar!”

The writers, Clive Barker and Peter Atkins, interject some humanity into this morass as well. Kirsty and Tiffany are our heroes, of course, but they find an unlikely ally and that adds depth to the film.

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“Does anyone have an aspirin?”

I like Hellbound: Hellraiser II a lot. For a long time, the first film in the series was my favorite, but this one is edging it out. I like it more with each viewing. The acting, especially in the first two films, is far better than in a lot of gory films of the period and the story and characters are riveting. Christopher Young’s music even won a Saturn Award. The best part is you get a lot more cenobite for the buck. The filmmakers must have known they had a good thing so they didn’t hide the leather-clad freaks. Giving Pinhead and his merry band more screen time works a treat. This is a fun one.

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“Anyway, we opened the box.”

 

Blood Simple. (1984)   Leave a comment

abby

“This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”
RED HARVEST by Dashiell Hammett

Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken word, you cannot wipe out the foot-track, you cannot draw up the ladder, so as to leave no inlet or clew. Some damning circumstance always transpires. The laws and substances of nature — water, snow, wind, gravitation — become penalties to the thief.
COMPENSATION by Ralph Waldo Emerson

What if there’s a crime and no one’s sure who committed the crime or what the crime is? What if you think you know who committed the crime, but you’re wrong? What if you can’t find your windbreaker anywhere? Also, what if you failed Conversation 101?

The owner of a dingy bar in Texas, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating.  He hires lowlife private detective, Loren Visser (the excellent M. Emmett Walsh) to tail her and confirm his suspicions.  Abby may or may not have cheated in the past, but on her way out of town she gets chummy with Ray (John Getz), a bartender in Marty’s saloon.  Marty can’t live with the knowledge of his wife’s infidelity so he decides to do something permanent about it and asks Visser to help. He may have hired the wrong guy.

Dark, moody, and atmospheric, BLOOD SIMPLE moves at a steady pace and always moves forward. The plot isn’t complicated. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen don’t go off on tangents which allows them to focus on the four main characters and what they think is going on. That’s the point, after all. The audience knows the entire story, but each character sees only his or her part in it. With limited information, they make poor decisions. They’re not crazy or irrational, but miscommunication or lack of any communication at all leads each of the main players to make bad decisions that compound each problem and dig them deeper into trouble. It’s like a high-stakes version of the telephone game, except in BLOOD SIMPLE, that innocent exercise of passing, “Dasher and Dancer are my favorite reindeer.” on as “Ashes cause cancer. Want a beer?” becomes dangerous confusion about a possible murder.

The characters, handicapped by limited access to the whole story, talk to one another, but their conversations muddy rather than clarify and people walk away from each exchange with less information than they started with. Only the audience is privy to the entire thing. This causes tension and a desire to yell at the screen. It also makes it hard to look away.

Shot in Austin, Texas with a small budget that Joel and Ethan Coen collected door-to-door, BLOOD SIMPLE looks and sounds more expensive than it should. Barry Sonnenfeld’s shadow-filled cinematography along with skillful editing by Roderick Jaynes and Don Wiegman lift the film’s quality above the usual mid-eighties thriller. Creative visual effects and a fantastic Carter Burwell score will stick with you, as will the trademark Coen gore. This was the Coen brothers’ first feature film and Burwell’s first film score, but you’d never know it. Their clear vision ties a simple plot, a small cast, and spare sets together to make an inventive neo-noir classic.

The cast, led by Frances McDormand, all excel at restraint. There’s so much left unsaid in every conversation, the script must have consisted largely of stage directions. That said, McDormand, Getz, Walsh, and Hedaya are all wonderful character actors who can say a lot without words.  McDormand’s character, Abby, even mentions the lack of chit chat. After she says to Ray that he’s quiet like Marty, she explains, “When he doesn’t say things, they’re usually nasty. When you don’t, they’re usually nice.” That’s sweet and all, but if Ray could just finish a sentence… The dialogue we get is choice. When Visser warns Marty to keep their association to himself, Marty says,” I wasn’t about to tell anyone. This is an illicit romance–we’ve got to trust each other to be discreet. For richer, for poorer.” Visser comes back with,” Don’t say that. Your marriages don’t work out so hot.” The whole film is an exercise in understatement and it’s a subtle, brutal treat.

This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.

The Coca-Cola Kid (1985)   3 comments

900full-the-coca--cola-kid-poster

Becker (Eric Roberts), a marketing genius, travels to Sydney from the United States to boost sales of Coca-Cola in Australia.  He’s a hired gun, of sorts, sent by Coca-Cola headquarters to drum up business. The laid-back executives at the Sydney office don’t know what to make of him, but are told by the brass, “Don’t try to understand him. Just know that he doubles and triples sales.” Staff in the Sydney branch decide, wisely, to leave him alone. Given free rein, Becker looks for weaknesses in the Aussie market. A distribution map of the country shows a glaring hole in Coke sales.  Rural Anderson Valley sells no Coke at all. Becker heads to the region to find out why. In Anderson Valley, Becker meets T. George McDowell (Bill Kerr), an autocratic businessman who makes his own brand of soft drinks and controls the soda market there.

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The tutti-frutti is made of wombats.

T. George’s passion and entrepreneurship impress Becker. His old-fashioned, but well-run factory turns out delicious products and employs many of the town’s residents. Still, even T. George is no match for the Coca-Cola machine.  The writing’s on the wall. Becker wants to bring in Coke and squeeze T. George out of his own territory.

coca-cola-kid
Stand up, Matilda’s waltzing.

The Coca-Cola Kid has a simple plot and could take place in Australia or even rural Mississippi or Maine if it stuck with the ‘just the facts, ma’am’ approach. It’d also be an average film and be over in thirty-five minutes. What takes it to the next level are the characters and tangential stories Frank Moorhouse weaves into the screenplay. One involves an aboriginal didgeridoo player, Mr. Joe (Steve Dodd) and other local musicians; another, a hotel bellman (David Slingsby), in a subversive political organization who mistakes Becker for a CIA agent. A third story revolves around Terri (Greta Scacchi), Becker’s secretary in Sydney and her chaotic home life and history.

Greta-Scacchi-in-The-Coca-Cola-Kid-Premium-Photograph-and-Poster-1002720__40119.1432420905.1280.1280
Tonight on Kris Kringle Yoga…

You’ll see familiar faces in The Coca-Cola Kid. Some Australian ‘that guys’ make appearances along with musicians Ricky Fataar and Tim Finn.

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Ricky Fataar and Steve Dodd in the studio

Finn also wrote the original songs and the faux Coke ad which features Mr. Joe on the didgeridoo. It’s a catchy tune.  Bill Kerr was a popular and well-known Australian actor and I noticed at least two cast members from The Road Warrior.  Rebecca Smart plays the precocious DMZ beautifully. Greta Scacchi’s role is not as fleshed-out as it could be, but she does a nice job with it as a flaky working mom with a complicated backstory. She and Roberts have great chemistry. Finally, Eric Roberts, plays Becker as a perfectionist who sees Coca-Cola as an extension of the Unites States and espouses its virtues with evangelical zeal.  He’s thrown himself into his work and eschewed a personal life.

eric
Brown and bubbly

He’s not like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross though. He has a tender heart and Roberts has the acting chops for it. In the 1980s, Eric Roberts made some terrific films.  Star 80, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Runaway Train, and The Coca-Cola Kid all show his talent and range.

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Becker in a vulnerable moment

During Becker’s mission, he meets a string of quirky, unpredictable characters which bring to mind the Bill Forsyth films Local Hero and Comfort and Joy.  As I thought more about it, I realized one of the offbeat players in The Coca-Cola Kid is Australia itself. Director, Dusan Makavejev lets the camera linger on the scenery as well as the actors. Like Local Hero, the place has a personality. It’s foreign to Becker. Everyone speaks English, but they all function so differently from the businessmen Becker deals with that it throws him. His neat, orderly world changes and it hits him hard. He generally rolls in, sizes up the competition, makes changes, and jets home to Atlanta to await his next assignment. He doesn’t get involved in the private lives of his employees. He doesn’t meet odd people.  He doesn’t get excited or upset. He does his job, then leaves. The funky wonderfulness of Australia and its people gets to him. It got to me too. I saw The Coca-Cola Kid when it came out in 1985 and I hoped Australia was like this.  Maybe it never was, but I like it anyway.

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Absence of Malice (1981)   2 comments

poster abs

Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) has a problem. A year into his strike force’s investigation into the disappearance and probable murder of Joey Diaz, a popular Miami union leader, Rosen has no leads. To shake things up, he decides to pressure local liquor wholesaler Michael Colin Gallagher (Paul Newman) into telling the feds what he knows. The trouble is, Gallagher doesn’t know anything. Gallagher’s deceased bootlegger father and his uncle, Malderone (Luther Adler) have mob ties, but not Gallagher. He’s an honest businessman. That doesn’t stop Rosen from leaking a story naming Gallagher as a suspect in the Diaz case to Megan Carter (Sally Field). Carter, a reporter for the Miami Standard newspaper, writes the story and her paper publishes it on page one.

news

Then, it begins. The accusation slowly begins to destroy Gallagher’s life. His workers strike. His customers cancel their accounts. The IRS dissects his finances. His business falters.

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“Why no Ziggy this week?”

Gallagher asks Carter where she got her information, but she won’t reveal her source. The newspaper staff stonewalls him and he gets no answers from the feds. Frustrated, he continues to dig into the matter and keep his business afloat until a tragedy forces him to act. When the controversy hurts his close friend Teresa (Melinda Dillon), Gallagher gets angry. He’s a smart man so he exacts a thinking man’s revenge.

sal

Director, Sydney Pollack and writer Kurt Luedtke get the plot humming along nicely, then it stalls. You’re sucked in from the beginning and then Sally Field shows up and puts the brakes on. In this strong ensemble, she’s miscast. I can’t buy her hard-boiled reporter any more than I can buy her romance with Paul Newman.

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“You say the nun FLEW?”

They have no chemistry and her jaded journalist has no credibility. I wonder if their romance was an afterthought added by producers to appeal to a wider audience. Anyway, the rest of the cast works a treat. Newman does a fine job as a gruff good guy who gets screwed and fights back. We like him. We’re outraged when he’s attacked and cheer him on when he reacts. Melinda Dillon is absolutely brilliant. Her voice, carriage, and even the way she holds a cigarette tell her story.

smoke

It’s a beautiful and poignant performance. She deserves her Oscar nomination. Then there’s Bob Balaban. He does weasely like no one else. Rosen, his self-righteous, arrogant federal prosecutor, worms his way onto your bad side and his quirky elastic band wringing is inspired.

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“It’s my ball and if I can’t pitch I’m going home.”

I can’t think of this film without picturing Rosen’s odd little habit. Luther Adler as Gallagher’s mobster uncle is a lot of fun too. He clearly enjoys his role. I saved the best for last. Wilford Brimley as Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Wells makes this movie. He has about eight minutes of screen time, but commands your attention for every second of it. His straightforward and logical approach to the case along with his homespun manner and way of speaking renew your faith in the justice system. Wells doesn’t listen to any excuses or rationalizations. In this world of half-truths and shades of gray, he’s a black and white breath of fresh air.

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“Dammit. This courthouse has no Quaker Oats.”

The idea that a federal agency can rip an honest man’s life apart on a whim is scary. Add in a little sloppy journalism and it’s a nightmare. Absence of Malice exposes the ‘ends justify the means’ mentality in our judicial system. It also shows the press’ desire to get to print first despite little proof a story even exists. Absence of Malice, by the way, refers to the public figure doctrine in law. To win a libel suit, the plaintiff must prove the defendant knows the statement is false, but prints it anyway with reckless disregard to the truth. Without that proof, the plaintiff is powerless.

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The fine acting, relevant topic, and fleshed-out characters make Absence of Malice an entertaining and thoughtful film. I recommend it.

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