What’s striking about the mixed notices the delirious thriller Malice received back in 1993 is how little credit film critics were willing to give its screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, for knowing exactly what they were doing. Granted, that’s easy to say in retrospect, before they became two of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood. Sorkin’s only credit before Malice was the script (and play) for A Few Good Men. It was before he went on to conquer TV with Sports Night and The West Wing, and to win an Oscar for The Social Network. Frank had penned Kenneth Branagh’s similarly unhinged thriller Dead Again in 1991, but it wasn’t until later that he cracked the Elmore Leonard code with the adaptations of Get Shorty and Out Of Sight. Yet at the time, critics like Roger Ebert and Peter Travers both complained specifically about the “red herrings” in Sorkin and Frank’s script, with Ebert going on to note, “Offhand, this is the only movie I can recall in which an entire subplot about a serial killer is thrown in simply for atmosphere.”
To paraphrase Pee-wee Herman: They meant to do that.
Much of the fun of Malice derives from Sorkin, Frank, and director Harold Becker understanding the been-there/done-that formulas of thrillers past and tinkering with them as much as possible. Instead of a little bit of misdirection, they devote a vast swath of the film to one. Instead of one or two neat little twists, they turn them out like Mikhail Baryshnikov on methamphetamine. Ebert was correct to call the movie busy—and those annoyed by its busyness are well within their rights not to like it. But the thought that any of Malice is accidental, or that perhaps the strong personalities of Sorkin, Frank, and the other cooks were operating at cross purposes, seems less plausible. Here’s a thriller that intends to be completely bananas, and trusts that viewers, like Alec Baldwin’s Gilbert & Sullivan-quoting surgeon, won’t get sick at sea.
There’s a serial rapist and murderer afoot on a college campus in New England, and Andy Safian (Bill Pullman), the associate dean, is pushing a local detective (Bebe Neuwirth) to solve the case before the school gets a reputation as unsafe for incoming students. At the Victorian fixer-upper where he lives, meanwhile, Andy and his wife Tracy (Nicole Kidman) are having trouble conceiving, and trouble paying the bills. That gives them the idea of opening up the third floor to a renter. A tenant arrives in the suave form of Dr. Jed Hill (Baldwin), a new surgeon who needs a temporary place to stay while he looks for a more permanent spot in town. When Tracy gets rushed to the emergency room with an ovarian cyst, Dr. Hill performs the surgery, making a questionable decision mid-procedure that has ramifications for every character in the movie. Except the serial rapist and murderer. He’s kind of a footnote, really.
Though Sorkin and Frank aren’t exactly putting Janet Leigh in the shower in Psycho, their decision to wrap up the murder plot well before the third act is subtly radical. Keep in mind: Malice starts with that as the A-plot, and doesn’t get around to the real intrigue until later. It doesn’t become a thriller until a criminal conspiracy starts to unravel. The era was chock-a-block with sexed-up Hitchcockian exercises—Becker directed one of them himself in 1989’s Sea Of Love, and the diabolical-tenant-of-a-fixer-upper premise had been worked through in 1990’s Pacific Heights—but Malice goes further afield in the storytelling and dialogue than any other. Even the most famous scene in the movie, where Baldwin offers his outrageously arrogant (and, in their way, insightful) thoughts on whether he has a God complex, is played out in quicksand, taking on added significance at every new turn of the plot. The worst thing that could be said about Malice is that it’s narrative tomfoolery for its own sake, like a Russian nesting doll that, once unfurled, is small and hollow at its center. But that would be a churlish denial of the fun Sorkin, Frank, Becker, and their terrific cast have in batting the audience around like a bored cat. It feels good to get played sometimes.
The new KL Studio Classics release only includes trailers for Malice and another Becker movie, The Onion Field, but the Blu-ray version does a great service to the noir textures of ace cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather), who knows better than anyone how to create atmosphere in color.