“We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law.” – Frank Galvin
Sidney Lumet’s 1982 courtroom drama ‘The Verdict’ languished on my Netflix cue for quite a while before I finally sat down to watch it. Despite all the glowing reviews I had read, I put it off because devoting two hours to it somehow sounded like a lot of work to me. The one or two clips I had seen over the years seemed dreary and forlorn. The plot synopsis, displayed prominently on the film’s original poster, doesn’t exactly describe a crackerjack legal thriller in the mold of more modern genre fare (e.g., ‘A Few Good Men’, ‘Runaway Jury’). Courtroom dramas are tricky because they are usually competent enough, they contain no shortage of dramatic possibilities, and they can often be quite thrilling (see 2007’s ‘Michael Clayton’), but how often do they transcend the genre and become something truly cinematic and memorable? Well, I should have trusted Lumet, the director of one courtroom drama that actually succeeded in that regard (’12 Angry Men’), to deliver another superb entry in the genre. ‘The Verdict’ is a smart, powerful and gripping film. I’m glad I finally gave it my time, because it paid off handsomely.
Paul Newman stars as Frank Galvin, a washed-up Boston attorney resigned to playing pinball at his favorite watering hole, when he’s not fleecing bereaved families for cases. Early on, we see him approaching a widow at her husband’s viewing, shamelessly handing her a business card just before being angrily dismissed. Galvin is an alcoholic who hasn’t tried an actual case in years, for reasons that are eventually made clear. His office is a mess, and so he has to resort to seeing clients in an adjacent façade of an office to appear professional. From the outset, we get a palpable sense of just how low this man has allowed himself to sink.
Galvin’s friend and former teacher, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden), hands him an ostensible slam-dunk medical malpractice case out of pity. The case should give Galvin enough money to retire, possibly at the bottom of a bottle of cognac. The case involves a young mother who aspirated under anesthetic during childbirth at a Catholic hospital, and has been rendered brain-dead and comatose. The woman’s family, though grieving, has no qualms about using the settlement money to improve their quality of life in a different state. Galvin, giddy over the expected generous settlement with the Catholic Church, goes to the hospital to take Polaroids of the victim. But Lumet patiently holds on a shot of the pictures as they develop, with the cold whirring of a respirator in the background, and then he lingers on Newman’s face, falling with heartbreak. This poignant scene, staged so beautifully by Lumet, and performed so powerfully by Newman, provides a key turning point. Not only will Galvin try the case (with no apparent evidence of wrongdoing), but he will simultaneously salvage his last shred of dignity, and perhaps even his own soul. Now that last line sounds hyperbolic, but watch this scene and you’ll see that the stakes are indeed that high.
Thus, we have the makings of a classic underdog story, complete with a chance at redemptive justice and the promise of explosive drama. Yet the most striking thing about ‘The Verdict’ is that it contains all the standard genre tropes you would find in any episode of ‘Law & Order’, while remaining grounded, restrained, even downright muted for its entire length. You want shocking twists? You got ‘em. There are several unexpected developments woven into David Mamet’s fine script, including one near the end that made me audibly gasp. You want the story of an underdog lawyer working against all odds, taking on a cold, monolithic entity, with a less-than-sympathetic judge to boot? Check. You want a doozy of a closing statement, famously performed in one take by Mr. Newman? Exhibit A is right here, folks.
Despite all of this, director Sidney Lumet refuses to embellish events, eschewing flashiness in favor of sturdy, workmanlike craftsmanship (save for one showy camera move as the verdict is read, which is entirely appropriate and amazing). Here is a legal thriller that plays almost exactly as it might in real life – and it is far more compelling than flashier entries in the genre because it deals honestly with its subject. The not-insignificant intrigue of the plot plays out against a frigid Boston landscape, populated by ominous cathedrals and soaked in a drab brown color palette. The score, by Johnny Mandel, is so sparse that I didn’t even register it. The whole film has a funereal tone – almost as if Lumet is actively trying to extinguish any hope the audience might cling to (certainly the open-ended closing shot supports that argument to some extent). But the thrills are there all right, because they are germane to Mamet’s screenplay. You can’t follow the logical progression of the story, with its multiple obfuscations and reveals, without being genuinely riveted and invested in the outcome (aside: my wife, who I felt certain would fall asleep during the movie, hung with it to the end. In one sitting. That should tell you something).
Rarely do I watch a film and feel compelled to comment on the quality of the performances, but ‘The Verdict’ is a genuine tour de force for the principal cast. Paul Newman is so good here that, in just a few short scenes, he obliterates years of movie star charisma to create one of the most desperate characters I’ve ever seen. One of my favorite moments comes when, after deciding to try the case, a troubling development forces Galvin to realize just how formidable his opponent is. In a lesser courtroom drama, the protagonist, armed with the Truth, would simply regroup and double down on his case. Instead, Galvin – who has habitually taken the easy way out – remains true to form and pleads with the archdiocese to renegotiate the settlement! When they refuse, the look of horror on Newman’s face communicates volumes. He continues with the case, but only because he has no other options (and still no evidence), and Newman provides a window into just how flawed a character Frank Galvin really is.
Newman also effectively conveys just how much rust this character has to shake off in order to even be on the same playing field as his opponents. Galvin makes mistakes, botches the jury selection process, and fails to properly vet the credentials of his witnesses. Throughout the film, I genuinely had no idea whether he was going to pull it off or not. Newman’s performance is the key to the whole film, because he somehow must get us to sympathize with Galvin – that we end up doing so is a testament to his acting prowess. James Mason also provides a wonderful performance as Ed Concannon, the lead counsel for the Church’s legal team, relishing his antagonistic role while staying just this side of cartoonish villainy. David Mamet has always had a gift for terse, punchy dialogue, and he provides the actors with some great lines throughout, along with meaty exchanges that really raise the dramatic stakes.
Rather than floating away into the ether, ‘The Verdict’ has stayed with me since I finally watched it, and I am convinced that the key to its power lies in its refusal to indulge in theatrics. This same material, filmed with modern panache or flourish, might easily have been forgotten in a week. Credit must surely go to Lumet for bringing his subtle, unvarnished brand of filmmaking to the proceedings, and therefore trusting the drama inherent in Mamet’s script. Within the courtroom genre, it surpasses ’12 Angry Men’ on my personal best list and, in my view, represents the genre’s most likely candidate for consideration on any greatest movies list (it was reportedly Richard D. Zanuck’s favorite film among all that he produced – quite a list). I don’t yet know whether it belongs among the greatest of all films – time will tell – but either way, ‘The Verdict’ is essential viewing and a great reminder that, though the courts exist to provide a chance at true justice, reality is rarely that dramatic.