New York — In his new movie ''Absence of Malice,'' Paul Newman plays an unusual hero: Michael Gallagher, a blue-eyed but hard-boiled businessman whose only crime was having a bootlegger for a father.
Normally, his parentage would pose no problems. The police are investigating a complicated case, though, and they think Gallagher might know some answers. So they plant an incriminating story in the local newspaper, hoping this will irk him into spilling some beans.
And that's where the love story comes in. To plant their bait, the cops dupe a hotshot reporter, who happens to be played by the winsome Sally Field. Skullduggery or no, it isn't long before she and Gallagher are gazing wistfully into each other's eyes, wishing this movie were a plain old romance instead of an ambitious look at the responsibilities of the press in a free society.
It's the kind of role Newman loves to play - a strong character in tough but dramatic circumstances. And this time, he said during my recent interview with him here, it was more than just a meaty part with a good script and director. It was a chance to make a statement on a subject that has concerned him a lot lately: the proprieties of the newspaper business.
Newman had an unpleasant brush with the journalistic world during his last project, ''Fort Apache the Bronx,'' a film that angered some New Yorkers by its image of their city as a battleground between heroic white cops and vicious minority thugs. It wasn't the opinion of the local citizenry that bothered the star, though. It was reportage by newspapers, some of which he claims was blatantly false. Little wonder he was pleased when his next enterprise turned out to be ''Absence of Malice,'' which turns the tables on the press-worshipping attitudes of ''All the President's Men,'' pointing out the damage a careless or irresponsible ''investigative reporter'' can do.
''I was savaged by some papers after 'Fort Apache the Bronx,' '' says Newman. ''I was most offended by the New York Post,'' which he claims misrepresented events surrounding the location filming of 'Fort Apache.' ''But journalists and newspapers protect each other, like doctors do. They won't name the paper that did these things. They'll only say, 'Mr. Newman has attacked a New York newspaper.'
''That's too bad, because if some papers are not accurate in their news stories, and report events that didn't occur, it damages the credibility of all papers, through guilt by association. It's unfortunate when responsible newspapers won't take the irresponsible ones to task. So I felt I'd like to do a picture about media abuse.''
Though his feelings on the subject are clearly strong, Newman insists that ''Absence of Malice'' is not ''an indictment'' of the press. Rather, he maintains, ''It's simply a cautionary tract that says, 'Look around.' Of course, I expect the chief violators will be most offended by the picture, because their arrogance is so great. But I wanted to call attention to the situation.''
Ironically, the movie might have been more ''cautionary'' and more effective if it had gone about its own business more singlemindedly. ''Absence of Malice'' is an unusually thoughtful film, by current standards, requiring a fair amount of brain-power just to follow its convoluted plot, much less meditate on its meanings. But besides raising a few hackles and raking a bit of muck, it wants to be a glossy Hollywood entertainment, too. Inordinate time and energy are diverted into the love angle, which is goopy despite tasteful treatment by the filmmakers.
Too little care is spent on the reporter character: You wonder how anyone who means so well could do everything so badly, and how she wangled herself into a big-time newsroom in the first place. And then there's poor Melinda Dillon, dragged into the plot solely to suffer a tragic fate, in a potentially devastating segment that seems rather academic under the solid but uninspired guidance of director Sydney Pollack.
Still in all, despite its considerable flaws, ''Absence of Malice'' is a movie to be grateful for at a time when few films offer anything in the way of social relevance or inner integrity. Newman is proud of the picture's cerebral slant, stating that its challenging story line and refusal to give easy answers were entirely conscious choices. Will audiences approach the picture with the necessary concentration, though, or have too many childish movies dulled the appetite for hard issues and ambiguous conclusions?
''We'll see,'' says Newman with a smile. ''Nobody can second-guess an audience, and I wouldn't have the arrogance to try. It's true audiences get seduced by easy movies they don't have to put anything into. And it's true the viewer has to work in this film. But somewhere along the line, there has to be a screaming protest against all the junk. Somewhere out there, there must be people who are fed up with baby food, and want to work a little. They want something a bit more challenging. They can handle it, if it's interesting and good.''
What does Newman look for when he's considering a script? ''Who knows?'' is the laconic reply. ''I wish I could pin it down, but I've never been able to.''
Then he thinks for a moment, and waxes a bit more philosophical, pointing out that ''there are only a few plots in the world, anyway. All that changes are the characters you can play, because a few new ones are added by technology from time to time - astronauts, for example, or certain kinds of doctors that didn't exist a few years ago. For the rest, it's just a question of presenting a basically familiar story in some new way. What I look for is a new envelope to put the same old letter in.''
Over the years, Newman has found a lot of provocative envelopes, from ''Hud'' to ''The Hustler,'' from ''Cool Hand Luke'' to his Tennessee Williams collaborations. It's been a fairly diverse career, peppered with great successes and a few fascinating flops, such as ''Buffalo Bill and the Indians'' and ''Quintet,'' his Robert Altman puzzlers. Says the star, musing on it all, ''It would have been a lot simpler to always look for one kind of hero image, and at times I wish I had. But it would have been a lot lazier, too.'' In all, he seems pleased with his various accomplishments and delighted that he found a few real gems -- in his opinion, at least -- along the way. ''Slap Shot,'' for example. ''What a deeply original film that was,'' says Newman enthusiastically. ''I mean , nobody had ever seen anything like that: a movie about a second-rate hockey team!''
Newman has also distinguished himself by moving beyond his acting career and into the director's chair. ''Rachel, Rachel'' was his first (and highly praised) effort along these lines, followed by ''Sometimes a Great Notion,'' in which one scene -- featuring Richard Jaeckel, Newman himself, and a rising river -- must be among the most suspenseful episodes ever filmed. And don't forget ''The Shadow Box,'' a rather shallow but definitively offbeat drama that Newman directed for television.
Not surprisingly, one of the toughest tasks for a complete performer/director like Newman is hunting out worthy material. ''I used to spend 85 percent of my time reading,'' he says. ''Now I spend 85 percent of my time reading for business,'' looking for scripts that might make feasible projects.
''I think my perceptions about film are pretty good,'' he continues. ''But the fact is, there simply isn't much good stuff around. So what's an actor to do? You can stop working. But you have to keep the instrument tuned. So you take the best there is and hope for the best. And you always start with the idea that it's going to end up pretty good.''
The only sure thing is that a serious actor's job is never a simple matter. ''You may start with a pretty bad script, and make it into a pretty good movie -- not a blockbuster, but reasonable. Or you may start with a good script, and fail to improve on it. So which do you give yourself the greater credit for? The great script might have been a great film no matter what. But your achievement on that 'pretty good' one was significant.''
Then too, Newman likes different kinds of ''envelopes'' to put his work into. For a pair of contrasting examples, he mentions ''The Sting'' -- calling it ''a plot movie'' -- and his own ''Rachel, Rachel,'' which has ''very little plot, but gives penetrating perceptions and comments on the human condition.''
How about his latest, ''Absence of Malice''? As he sees it, ''the character moves inside the plot. The film is propelled more by the story than by the character development alone, but the characters are important too. And that's okay. You can do some very interesting acting under those conditions . . . ''