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Star of the Month: Paul Newman
Remind Me

The Verdict (1982)

Wednesday May, 29 2019 at 08:00 PM

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The first time we see attorney Frank Galvin, the main character of The Verdict (1982), he's playing a pinball machine, and not playing it well. Using leisure hours productively is evidently not high on his priorities list. A little later we see him practicing his profession, and again he seems less than admirable, prowling funeral parlors in hopes of acquiring a client, any client at all, even it's a total stranger with no actual need for a lawyer. In between the pinball and the parlors, he drinks.

Is this typical of Frank's behavior, or is he just having an off day? Before long we hear his backstory, and it's not a happy one. He started his career with a powerful law firm, but a scandal almost got him disbarred - whether fairly or not, we learn much later in the story - and he's been drifting ever since. His old friend and colleague Mickey Morrissey occasionally sends business his way, but it's been years since he won a case in court. Now he's supposed to be representing a woman named Sally Doneghy, whose sister suffered catastrophic brain damage because of faulty anesthesia in a major hospital, and he hasn't even bothered to meet with her.

Realizing that even Mickey is losing patience with him, Frank finally sets up a conference with Sally and her husband, who are seeking damages from the Roman Catholic diocese that runs the hospital. The cleric in charge, Bishop Brophy, wants to avoid bad publicity by settling out of court, paying far less than Sally and her husband think is right. Frank has good reasons to accept the settlement. For one thing, it would put some badly needed money into his pocket. For another, if the case went to trial he'd be up against the aptly named Ed Concannon, an aggressive and imperious attorney with an entire legal team at his disposal.

But a bedside visit to the permanently comatose victim stirs Frank's conscience and unlocks his energy. Insisting on a trial, he embarks on the defense despite the fact that just about everyone - even Judge Hoyle, who's presiding over the case - thinks he can't possibly win. He has only two allies: Mickey, still rooting for him and willing to help, and Laura Fischer, a woman who gets romantically involved with Frank after they meet one evening in a bar.

The Verdict was directed by the prolific Sidney Lumet, who made all kinds of pictures but is best known for a long list of urban crime dramas ranging from Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) to Prince of the City (1981) and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), all of which are set in New York, his longtime base of operations. Although he ventured north for The Verdict, which takes place in Boston, his flair for city life is undiminished - in the look of a second-rate apartment, the sound of a streetwise accent, the atmosphere of a neighborhood saloon.

Apart from specializing in urban subjects, Lumet never cultivated a personal style in his films, preferring a pragmatic approach that tackled each production according to the story's particular needs. The Verdict is a generally dark drama, punctuated by shifty, cowardly, two-faced, or downright treacherous actions on the part of almost everyone. Lumet enhances the narrative's moody tone with a moody visual style, executed by the fine cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, whose other films of the 1980s include Lumet's own Deathtrap (1982), Daniel (1983), and Garbo Talks (1984) as well as James L. Brooks's Terms of Endearment (1983) and John Huston's classic Prizzi's Honor (1985). He does splendid work here.

Lumet takes considerable artistic risks in The Verdict, all of which pay off splendidly. The closing scenes are surprising and offbeat. The film has a score by Johnny Mandel, a veteran of major pictures like John Boorman's Point Blank (1967) and Robert Altman's MASH (1970), but in keeping with the story's somber, introspective qualities, Lumet refrains from using it - even during the opening titles - except for a few chords now and then, allowing dialogue, acting, lighting, and framing to convey the narrative's emotions with no outside support from conventional background music.

Most stunning of all is the early scene showing Frank's visit to the vegetative woman in the hospital, where he goes to take a couple of Polaroids that might be useful if he can't avoid a trial. He snaps the pictures, retrieves the self-developing film from the camera, and waits for the images to materialize. Lumet's camera waits along with him, focusing in close-up on the pictures as they gradually become visible. When we see Frank's face after this profoundly haunting pause, looking troubled and absorbed as never before, we know how deeply his mind and heart have been affected because we've witnessed the same slow revelation on the little squares of film. It's as bold and brilliant a moment as Lumet ever created.

The Verdict is based on a 1980 novel by author and attorney Barry Reed, adapted by David Mamet, whose trademark staccato dialogue periodically spices up the story. The crowning contributions come from the top-flight cast, headed by Paul Newman, who strikes a meticulous balance between Frank's uncountable flaws and the inner strength that manages to surface despite his best efforts to forget it's there. James Mason makes the pompous Concannon into a self-important creep, and Jack Warden is exactly right as Mickey, our hero's longsuffering friend. Charlotte Rampling is sexy, melancholy, and mysterious as Laura, who turns out to have secrets of her own, and Lindsay Crouse makes the most of a small but pivotal role as the film moves toward its conclusion. Among the other standouts are Edward Binns as the manipulative bishop, Milo O'Shea as the exasperated judge, Wesley Addy as the man who wrote the book on anesthesiology, and especially Joe Seneca as an African-American physician whose testimony for the plaintiff doesn't go as planned.

Academy Award nominations went to Newman for best actor, Mason for best supporting actor, Lumet for best director, Mamet for best adapted screenplay, and The Verdict for best picture. The same lineup also received Golden Globe nominations. None of the nominations turned into victories, but the movie deserved these honors and more. It has no less impact today than when it premiered.

Director: Sidney Lumet
Producers: David Brown, Richard D. Zanuck
Screenplay: David Mamet; based on the novel by Barry Reed
Cinematographer: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Film Editing: Peter Frank
Art Direction: John Kasarda
Music: Johnny Mandel
With: Paul Newman (Frank Galvin), Charlotte Rampling (Laura Fischer), Jack Warden (Mickey Morrissey), James Mason (Ed Concannon), Milo O'Shea (Judge Hoyle), Lindsay Crouse (Kaitlin Costello), Edward Binns (Bishop Brophy), Julie Bovasso (Maureen Rooney), Roxanne Hart (Sally Doneghy), James Handy (Kevin Doneghy), Wesley Addy (Dr. Towler), Joe Seneca (Dr. Thompson), Lewis Stadlen (Dr. Gruber), Kent Broadhurst (Joseph Alito), Colin Stinton (Billy)

by David Sterritt



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