In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Guilty pleasures aren’t really my thing. As many have argued, there’s not much point in feeling remorse about enjoying something, so long as that something isn’t locked up in your creepy basement. I’m perfectly willing, however, to admit that some of the movies I cherish are somewhat stupid. Occupying a low spot on my top 10 list for 1993, Malice boasts what may be the most ludicrous narrative structure in the history of trashy thrillers, which is part of the fun. It’s not so much that the movie has a big plot twist, but that it devotes an absolutely insane amount of time and energy to misdirection, eventually revealing that the main story is just a laborious apparatus required for a single, quick reveal. It’s complete nonsense, to be sure, but so wittily scripted (by Scott Frank and Aaron Sorkin), and performed with such manic conviction by its first-rate cast (Bill Pullman, Nicole Kidman, Alec Baldwin), that it’s easy to surrender to the absurdity.
Malice was a moderate commercial hit, grossing $46 million (the equivalent of about $73 million today). I’m not sure how it’s aged though. Jack Donaghy did once allude to the film’s most famous scene, saying that he’d proclaimed himself God during a deposition, and while 30 Rock wasn’t shy about making obscure references—especially to Baldwin’s real-life career—that still gives me hope that Malice hasn’t completely disappeared into the cultural ether. In the movie, Baldwin’s character, a surgeon named Jed Hill, mistakenly removes the healthy ovaries of a woman (Kidman), who sues him for malpractice. There’s abundant reason to believe that Dr. Hill may be the serial killer who’s terrorizing the area, and his conduct during this deposition of the hospital’s chief of staff, Dr. Martin Kessler (George C. Scott), doesn’t exactly allay suspicions. It does, however, provide Baldwin with another opportunity (just a year after reaming the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross) to go to town with a monologue that oozes arrogant, entitled venom.
Because this is remembered justifiably as Baldwin’s scene, it’s easy to forget that he’s completely silent for most of it. Likewise, Kidman says nothing until the very end. Mostly, it’s Mr. Dennis Riley (Peter Gallagher) grilling Dr. Kessler, and the scene nicely captures the unusual nature of a deposition, which is both more and less grueling than a trial’s cross-examination. The absence of a jury means the lawyers have nobody to perform for, but it also means that they don’t need to temper their hostility as they might in a courtroom—it doesn’t matter if they look disdainful or cruel. Gallagher really goes in for the kill here, creating an indelible portrait of a high-priced shark with very little screen time. Director Harold Becker helps him out by opening the scene with a shot that follows a paralegal into the conference room (number XVIII!) as she hands him some documents, swiftly and efficiently establishing Riley as the deposition’s alpha male. (The assistant who brings copies of Kessler’s evaluation around to the other side of the table is another nice, surprisingly realistic touch.)
The gist of the interrogation is that Dr. Kessler once noted that Jed suffers from a God complex. “God complex” actually has its own Wikipedia entry, though the term doesn’t seem to be especially applicable to doctors or surgeons; indeed, most of the page is devoted to its use in fiction (including Malice). And Dr. Kessler is correct when he says that it has no clinical meaning whatsoever. Nonetheless, it’s very easy to imagine that a top surgeon might believe himself infallible, for exactly the reasons stated. The beauty of Malice is that, while the plot as a whole is ridiculous, each individual element seems plausible. Even Jed’s outburst, which has a very specific strategic purpose, and which results in his lawyer instantly conceding the case and offering a settlement, seems credible as the result of a major-league prick losing his cool. I don’t know whether Frank or Sorkin is responsible for writing this scene—if I had to guess, I’d say Frank, if only because the dialogue doesn’t have Sorkin’s signature ping-pong rhythm. But whoever wrote it did a superb job of devising a classic “disastrous testimony” scenario that unfolds as it might in the real world—that is, not in a courtroom.
What everybody remembers, however, is Baldwin’s “I am God” speech. At the time, I remember reading speculation that David Mamet had come in and ghost-written it, at Baldwin’s request. There’s no mention of it anywhere online that I can find, though, so that was probably just a rumor. (The one thing that makes it seem plausible is Jed concluding his litany of accomplishments with the Gilbert and Sullivan line “and I’m never ever sick at sea,” which also gets quoted, apropos of nothing, in Mamet’s American Buffalo.) In any case, it’s a masterful portrait of controlled megalomania, practically purred by Baldwin at his smoothly, malevolent best. Again, though, while the character’s decision to say those things is (ostensibly) nuts, there’s a certain realpolitikunderlining them. From the standpoint of an atheist, every word Jed speaks is true: If there’s a God in the operating room, it is indeed the chief surgeon, and there’s no reason to plead your case to anybody else. That’s not to say that doctors don’t make mistakes, or that their authority shouldn’t be questioned. But would you want to be operated on by somebody who was constantly second-guessing himself?
Still, that’s just devil’s-advocate subtext—a welcome extra layer. At this point, about halfway through its running time, the movie seeks to convince us that Jed is a monster (which he is, but not in the way we might assume… and there’s a bigger monster standing behind him). His declaration that he is God echoes the infamous moment in Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life when James Mason’s drug-addled father, reminded that God ultimately spared Isaac, bellows “God was wrong!” Both are cases of authority run amuck, but where Mason, who’s high on cortisone, is manic and anguished, Baldwin plays his sociopath with the silky calm that we would now associate with a CEO. Malice doesn’t look especially ’90s, apart from the absence of the Internet, cell phones, etc.; it could be remade today with few modifications. But the plot pivots on Jed being a rock-star surgeon, and I don’t know that anyone now would dream up that story in the first place. Twenty years later, we prefer our Machiavellian bad guys a bit more corporate.