The Verdict Review
Sidney Lumet's first film was the classic jury-room drama Twelve Angry Men so it seems appropriate that one of his best later works should have been a courtroom drama. The Verdict is a riveting example of the genre at its best and, although it is flawed in certain respects, it works both as a suspenseful trial movie and an intelligent, beautifully performed character study.
The hero, for want of a better word, is Frank Galvin (Newman), a once promising attorney whose principled stand against a colleague's attempts at jury tampering led to his being framed and nearly disbarred. In the past three years he has worked on only four cases and he managed to lose all of them. Descending into a comforting haze of self-pity and alcohol, Galvin thinks that his life is effectively over. But, and this is the formulaic bit, just as he thinks it's time to quit, his old friend Mickey Morrissey offers him the chance to get back into the ring with what he sees as a sure-fire winner - a medical malpractice suit involving a woman who went in to have her baby and ended up dead through the delivery of the wrong anaesthetic. The hospital, St Catherine's in Boston, is run by the Archdiocese , and they are keen for a quick settlement with minimum publicity. Galvin is initially willing to settle, and the sisters family want to move out West with the money, but his visit to the victim's hospital bed awakens something deep inside him, a sense of humanity and an outrage at injustice, that prevents him from compromising, so he rejects the offer and insists on going to trial.
As Time Out suggested in their 1983 review, this is basically Rocky goes to court, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In Rocky, Stallone created one of the great modern myths, and Lumet's film builds on this feel-good plot with a depth of characterisation that is rare even in the courtroom drama. Galvin is a marvellous character; flawed, vulnerable and often unsympathetic, but with a flame of decency that makes him a worthy successor to Lumet's other great late-20th century anti-heroes like Serpico, Max Schumacher and, of course, Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon. One of Lumet's favourite themes, the individual fighting the vipers of the establishment, comes into focus again in The Verdict. Galvin is not just up against the doctors, he is fighting the authorities of the Catholic Church who are not about to admit that a patient died in one of their hospitals through the negligence of their staff. The Church is represented both by the smoothly hypocritical Bishop (Edward Binns) and the awesomely powerful, witty and elegant attorney Ed Concannon, played by James Mason. Mason was rarely better than he is here, dripping a sort of poisonous charm as he coaches his star witness and casually patronises Galvin, whom he feels is unworthy to oppose him. This kind of acting opposition rouses Paul Newman to give one of his greatest performances, some of the best work he has ever done. Galvin is a dream for any actor and Newman revels in the chance to play alcoholic and unsympathetic for once. He doesn't try to make Galvin some kind of saint, nor does he soft-pedal the alcoholic bouts of self-hatred which make the character so difficult to like. That we do empathise with him, despite everything, is down to Newman's power as an actor and the sheer magnetism of his screen presence. When he's on screen with another strong actor, whether it's Mason or the excellent Jack Warden, he raises his game and the results are electrifying.
The actual courtroom plot tends to drag a bit and it's only in the last forty minutes or so that we get into the trial. Even then, Lumet tends to chop it up into brief segments so the viewer doesn't get chance to become engrossed in the courtroom theatricals. This is a little puzzling until you realise that he's not very interested in the trial anyway - David Mamet's script originally finished before the verdict itself - and that this is basically a character study of Frank Galvin in which the trial is incidental. Even during the trial, the best scenes are those in which Galvin goes up against the deeply prejudiced judge (O'Shea). One moment, when he finally explodes at the unfairness of the judge's asking the witnesses questions and 'losing my case for me', is a real stand-up-and-cheer scene - "You push me into court five days early, I lose my star witness, I can't get a continuance and, y'know what, I don't care".
More problematic is the sub-plot of Galvin finding romance with a mysterious woman named Laura Fischer (Rampling). This is introduced mainly to facilitate a, not especially surprising, twist in the plot, and the scenes between her and Galvin tend to be a drag on the film. Rampling has a strong presence and she isn't bad at all - there is a good scene where she rails at Frank for thinking he's lost the case before he even starts - but the character is too schematic as part of Galvin's redemption and only the final moments really convince as part of a complex relationship. David Mamet's screenplay, which is otherwise a model of terse intelligence and witty duologues, falls down with the character of Laura since he can't think of anything interesting for her to do and thus doesn't provide her with much decent dialogue.
Visually, the film is particularly noteworthy. Lumet and his DP Andrzej Bartkowiak set out to give this film a distinctive look inspired by the paintings of Caravaggio and the result is something very different to the standard TV-movie look of most courtroom movies - Jagged Edge is one of the worst offenders. Characters are frequently in shadow - indeed, Galvin begins in darkness and is often only half-lit from the sides - and this is surprisingly effective. Added to this is Lumet's careful planning of shots. He often shoots from high above and slightly below to add emphasis to his points about oppression and injustice. The solemnity of the film is sometimes a little jarring and the scarcity of music tends to draw attention to this, although the actors supply regular shots of oxygen to the sometimes claustrophobic style.
But solemn as this film is, it's also basically a feel good drama about a loser who becomes, regardless of the verdict itself, a winner. Newman and Mason are worth seeing in anything and they produce some of their best work in The Verdict. The courtroom drama genre has an in-built tension which is just about director proof (although even a director as adept as Lumet produced a turkey in the trial stakes, 1993's Guilty As Sin) and this thoughtful, literate film has enough suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Available both on its own and as part of a 3 disc Paul Newman collection, this Fox disc of The Verdict is a very commendable release. It's not exactly a loaded special edition but it's got some surprisingly good features.
The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. The print is clean and clear and the transfer is very pleasant to watch. No serious problem with artifacting, although one or two artifacts are visible during the darker interior scenes, and there is a pleasingly low level of grain. The colours, deliberately muted, come across distinctively and the contrast is excellent.
The soundtrack is a straight Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track. This keeps the dialogue largely confined to the centre channel but broadens out over the front channels for the ambient effects. It's not a stunning track - not that this sort of film would ever be reference material - but it serves the film well and the dialogue, occasionally mumbled by the actors, is always clear.
The main bonus feature is a commentary. Now, BE WARNED, the description on the back of a commentary track by Paul Newman and Sidney Lumet is something of a misnomer. Newman supplies approximately 100 seconds of comments to the track and the rest consists of a scene specific commentary from Lumet. This, however, is not a serious problem as Lumet provides an excellent guide to the film which is funny, informative and engaged. His love of the filmmaking process is evident in everything he says and he is evidently proud of the film and adores his actors. There are a few dead spots, mostly when he stops to watch the film, but overall it's a very good track.
We also get a 6 minute featurette, made for TV in 1982, which contains brief interviews with Newman, Mason, Warden, Lumet and, briefly, Barry Reed - the author of the book upon which the film was based. This is superficial stuff but it's nice to see the actors coming across as engagingly in real life as they do on the screen. There is also a small stills gallery of 8 behind the scenes pictures. Finally, the disc contains the rather effective, if pompous, theatrical trailer.
There are a range of subtitles and a measly 15 chapter stops.
The Verdict is a fine film which has not dated at all in the 20 years since it was made. The issue of medical malpractice is still all too familiar, and the story of personal redemption is a sure-fire winner when it's done with as much professionalism as it is here. The disc is a good one and is recommended. But it is only available in a 3 disc Paul Newman collection, which also contains Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Robert Rossen's marvellous The Hustler.