An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Verdict (1982)
- Credit: Archant
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
The Verdict; dir: Sidney Lumet. Starring: Paul Newman, James Mason, Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling, Milos O’Shea. Cert: 15 (1982)
The courtroom drama is something of an endangered species these days. Happily it’s not extinct but there are very few sightings of this once thriving staple of big screen entertainment.
From To Kill A Mockingbird to Twelve Angry Men to The Runaway Jury, the courtroom drama finds its power in well-honed dialogue and compelling characterisation.
The audience has to be an impartial jury, rooting for the underdog, desperate for some outrageous injustice to be corrected.
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The Verdict, starring Paul Newman in spellbinding form, is just one such movie. It has a script by playwright David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet, the man who gave us the classic Twelve Angry Men with Henry Fonda.
As with most courtroom dramas there is more to the film than what is going on in the courtroom. The Verdict is a tale of one man’s redemption, salvation you might say, as Paul Newman’s washed-up, alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin throws caution to the wind and sets out to do the decent thing even though it is almost certain to bring him ruin and leave his clients with nothing.
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Mamet and Lumet cleverly emphasise that doing the right thing, standing up for what you believe in comes at a price, sometimes a very high price.
This is not a movie designed to have you punching the air in triumph as a charismatic smart-talking lawyer runs rings around an arrogant businessman or politician, getting him to confess to a lifetime of corruption.
The Verdict is a meticulously planned, character portrait of a man, who views the world through the bottom of a whisky glass and has virtually no friends or self-esteem left.
His one last friend Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) has managed to line him up with a lucrative case which shouldn’t ever need to come to court. A young woman has been plunged into a coma after she was given the wrong anaesthetic during child-birth.
It’s an open-and-shut malpractice suit against a leading hospital in Boston, run by the Catholic church who won’t want themselves to be exposed in a public trial. Everyone expects the case to be settled out of court with Galvin taking a third of the settlement as his fee. This should provide him with drinking money for many years to come.
But, as he takes photographic evidence of the young woman hooked up to a ventilator in a hospital ward, something snaps inside. This woman’s injuries shouldn’t be a bargaining chip. In the flicker of his face, in the narrowing of his eyes Newman silently convinces us that Frank Galvin has had his Road To Damascus moment.
It is an extraordinary piece of acting in a film full of brilliant moments. But, Lumet and Mamet stick with reality, they don’t have Galvin throwing the bottle away – after all this man is an alcoholic, he’s going to stay a drinker for a while yet – but this is an important first step.
Frank Galvin becomes focussed, rediscovers his love of the law and finds out that he is still enjoys the cut and thrust of the courtroom.
Although this is the portrait of one man, The Verdict is not a one man show. Veteran character actor (and supporting player in Twelve Angry Men) Jack Warden is superb as Galvin’s taken-for-granted mate Mickey, while Charlotte Rampling is cool and yet seductive as Galvin’s bar-room love interest but the only person who can match Newman for icy ferocity in the acting stakes is James Mason as the hospital’s defending counsel.
You do believe that here is a man that could convince a jury that black is white and that up is down. Newman and Mason are very well matched in the climatic courtroom scenes but for all the judicial fireworks, Mason is an experienced enough actor to know that the movie is not about the trial but is about the future of a once-respected lawyer called Frank Galvin.
Newman brings his full charisma to bear on Galvin. Although he now has the shakes and watery eyes you can still catch a glimpse of the man he once was. It’s a towering performance and Lumet allows his leading man the time and space to build up the necessary layers of character for us to get to know him before he goes into the courtroom.
It’s a film that starts quietly and builds to a tremendous climax. Lumet directs at an unhurried pace and allows room for nuance which is provided by the actors working from David Mamet’s polished script.
The film opens as it means to go on. It’s a back-lit shot of Newman playing a pinball machine. There is no music, all you hear is the ambient sounds of the bar. In fact there is virtually no music in the film at all. Lumet is not interested in telling us what to think and what to feel, all the information is provided in the words and the performances.
It’s a brilliant tale of redemption and if Ben Kingsley hadn’t won the Oscar for Gandhi that year then Newman would have surely carried off the Best Actor award for his charismatic portrayal of a flawed but ultimately big-hearted man.