The Verdict Is a Courtroom Thriller of a Different Order
By Robert Silva
From director Sidney Lumet and writer David Mamet, this moody drama features Paul Newman at his late-career best.
The Verdict tackles issues of truth and justice, responsibility and power, but, ultimately, this is a movie about Paul Newman. Few things can command one’s attention like the actor’s rugged features, and glacier-blue eyes, even when he’s playing less than reputable characters, be they bad-boy cowboys (Hud), pool-hall sharks (The Hustler), or here, ambulance-chasing lawyer Frank Galvin. As the story begins, Galvin’s a man in serious disrepair: soaked in Bushmills whiskey, distributing business cards to the bereaved at funerals, and reviving from yet another bender, with a cut above his eye he doesn’t remember getting. But he can likely guess how it happened — he did it to himself.
The great Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men), an expert at institutions and compromised characters, has both here. Lumet keeps his camera trained on Frank as he wanders Boston spaces reminiscent of a moody Edward Hopper painting, and to the hospital where a young woman lies comatose. This is Frank’s new client: She was pregnant, administered the wrong anesthesia, and now, she’s a vegetable. Her infant is dead, and she’s only alive because of the machines.
The church wants to settle. The victim’s sister wants to settle. Frank will get a third of the payout. Easy money. While visiting, Frank takes Polaroids of the woman for the upcoming settlement negotiation. No words are spoken, but as the instant photos develop, Frank’s expression shifts. We watch and understand that everything about the character has changed. It’s a great moment in screen acting for Newman, and there are many more.
The Verdict is one of Newman’s best performances. It’s the work of a star (then 57) who seems to have dismantled some of the scaffolding of his persona, and is now exposing a very private part of himself. Even in repose he’s alive. A look, a sigh, a slumping of shoulders, speak volumes, as Frank shambles his way toward redemption, moved by the plight of his client, unmoving in hospital sheets, dead but alive.
If the writer’s job is to make things difficult for the hero, playwright-turned-screenwriter David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) makes them close to impossible. Galvin’s star witness bails. The judge is corrupt. The opposing lawyer is well-heeled Ed Concannon (a droll James Mason), and always one step ahead. Moreover, Frank is going up against Boston’s major institutions: the hospital, the church, the government.
There are deeper complications. Is Frank’s awakening itself above suspicion? He wants to take the case to trial. But for whose benefit? It’s against the wishes of his client’s family. And if he wins, he’ll surely profit. If this is true, it’s also true that it bothers Frank.
In a key scene, a panicked Frank retreats to the bathroom, shutting the door on a world he usually numbs with alcohol, as the soundtrack rises to a cacophony. He breathes in and out. There’s a knock on the door. He asks, quietly, sincerely, respectfully, to be left alone. It’s not a scene you often see.
In the pantheon of courtroom thrillers, The Verdict is unusual in other respects. Surely, it hits the marks of the genre — the surprise witness, the big trial, the closing argument — but it’s clearly after bigger game. The legal verdict itself, once delivered, feels slightly beside the point (and rendered so quickly you might need to rewind). We realize the big question of the film is something else entirely: Can Frank change his life?