It is the story of a man, a story of redemption that also happens to be one of the best courtroom dramas ever made that I dedicate this post to. It is Sidney Lumet‘s, The Verdict released on this day in 1982. It is quite the film.
The Verdict is filmed from a David Mamet script based on a novel by Barry Reed, a Boston attorney who based the book on his real-life observations. When Mamet initially turned in his original script to the film’s producers they had a major problem with it. David Mamet didn’t include a resolution to the story, there was no verdict. Not satisfied that the playwright could handle a film script, they gave the scriptwriting duties to several other writers who submitted countless rewrites. But when Sidney Lumet was hired to direct, he went back to Mamet’s version (thank God because it’s brilliant). He preferred Mamet’s gritty story and, with the writer’s accession, added a resolution to end the film.
“The weak have to have someone to fight for them.”
Frank Galvin is a beaten man. An alcoholic. An ambulance-chasing attorney who looks through the obituaries for clients. His modus operandi includes attending the funerals of those whose names he saw in the listings and lying to the bereaved to make a quick buck – to survive – until the next death notice appears that may present him a similar, distasteful opportunity.
We first see Frank Galvin, played by Paul Newman as the film opens – it’s morning and he’s at a bar having beer for breakfast, preparing for the day ahead by standing at a pinball machine contemplating his losses. A dark figure against the light of day through the window – without a word we know immediately the pinball loss is symbolic. He’s not in a good place, this man. In fact, he’s hanging on by a thread.
The Verdict offers wonderful characterization by way of an exquisitely written screenplay (how many times have I said that already?), brilliant direction and outstanding performances. Ten minutes into the film we know Frank Galvin’s situation in life to a tee. Portraying this dispirited man, Newman’s physicality – a heavy posture, slumbering movement and thick voice should be the stuff of legend – this is how it’s done, folks. Acting, that is.
By the way, the brilliant opening scene with the pinball machine, the image of which is shown above, is mirrored throughout the film showcasing in a way the stages of the character of Frank Galvin. When we see him losing at pinball he is losing in life – when we see him reach the apex in the game, illustrated by the celebratory sounds of the pinball bonuses, he is doing well in life (even if for just a day). Inspired juxtaposition. Bravo! I love it!
Anyway…Avoiding court at all costs, if and when Galvin’s searches for cases should turn up a winner, his only goal for success is to settle each case. Alcoholism and success in a courtroom are not bedfellows. Galvin has that in mind when his friend and associate, Mickey Morrissey (played by Jack Warden), reminds him of an upcoming meeting concerning a potential moneymaker, the medical malpractice case of a woman who was left brain-dead by doctors who administered the wrong anesthesia to her during childbirth. Frank meets with the woman’s only family, her sister and brother-in-law, and assures them they have a good case, one they could settle for decent money because not only are the doctors involved of repute, but the hospital is owned by the Archdiocese of Massachusetts. The rich and powerful, Archdiocese of MA! The couple want to put the horrible incident behind them so they can move on with their lives, but the woman’s sister also wants justice.
Frank Galvin sets up a meeting with the Archdiocese and its representative, the powerful Bishop Brophy (played by Edward Binns). But before he goes, in order to have the proper ammunition by which he can get the best settlement offer possible, he stops by the hospital where the young woman lies, lifeless. He intends to take dramatic Polaroid pictures of her to use as leverage. As he does so, Frank has a revelation and we get to see a wonderful moment on film. Again, without a word uttered a man is reborn before our eyes by the realization of what really matters. There’s a real person lying on that bed, not a negotiating tool, and her life was taken from her. In the next scene Frank sits in a chair in the Bishop’s sprawling office with Polaroids in hand but, surprising even himself, he can’t accept a settlement. Those photos represent a life robbed of a future.
Frank Galvin will try the case. One last chance to prove himself. One last chance at redemption.
That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, which is compelling, to say the least. By what I’ve stated one would think Frank’s journey to beat insurmountable odds presented him is (simply) an uphill battle. However, The Verdict goes well beyond simply depicting the story of a man in trouble beating the odds. It does so in a manner of stages that twist the viewer’s guts. From rock bottom to reprieve to a deeper hole to absolute hopelessness to redemption. Frank’s is not a simple journey. The odds that this man with a terrible reputation, zero self-worth, no resources available and no one who believes in him has even a chance to beat to mighty Catholic Church are…just…non-existent.
Except…“Sometimes people surprise you. They have a great capacity to hear the truth.”
I can’t say enough about Paul Newman’s portrayal of Frank Galvin. It’s raw and deep and true and one of the best in the legendary career of one of my favorite actors. This is a powerhouse that calls for grit and Newman delivers BIG time! And of course, his efforts are only enhanced by the expertise of one of my favorite directors, the great, Sidney Lumet who, in my opinion, is one of the best actor’s directors who ever lived. I say this as a fan of course, I’m no expert, but to me, only Elia Kazan before him could reach/show a character’s soul with his camera – consistently. You can read an earlier post I dedicated to Mr. Lumet here, if interested. Lumet’s style and purpose enhance characterization in The Verdict with lighting, reminiscent of classic film noir in many instances – overpowering sets that emphasize everything Frank Galvin is up against is enormous and powerful, as if he were a fly on…well, something huge. It’s just beautifully done. I also love the use of music in this film, which is sparse adding to the reality and tension in many scenes and the story as a whole. When it is used, the music deepens the drama but is never intrusive.
Lumet also uses several extended scenes, meaning he doesn’t cut, allowing the action to play out as if on a stage and films with a steady camera. There’s one scene in particular that illustrates this and is superb but I was unable to find an image of it. Frank is in his office with Mickey and he’s in a state of desperation as all seems to be falling down around him – his one, last chance at winning at anything in life is crumbling quickly. Lumet set the camera in the corner of the room, steady and at a very low angle, as if in the floor and just left it there. The lighting is moody, dimmed, muted, earth colors as it is in most of the film. Then he allows Newman and Warden to just ACT. It’s beautiful. And, by the way, not one closeup in the scene – shot entirely at a distance from the actors. Lumet is a genius for recognizing how powerful this would be, adding more power when he eventually goes in for a close-up. As powerful a scene as that office scene is in The Verdict, it is not unique to this Lumet film – it’s the same technique he used in some of his other films, such as 12 Angry Men and Fail-Safe, an under-appreciated but wonderful thriller.
A few other tidbits worth noting – Jack Warden, a great, natural, character actor adds a lot to The Verdict. A favorite of Sidney Lumet’s, Warden made several movies with the director starting with 12 Angry Men in which he played Juror #7, the one who couldn’t wait to get to his baseball game. In The Verdict, Warden reminds me of his role as Max Corkle in the Warren Beatty/Buck Henry-directed, Heaven Can Wait (1978) – a wise “side-kick” with a huge heart who says it like it is. Wonderful actor.
Playing the high-powered attorney representing the interest of the powerful in The Verdict, Ed Cancannon is James Mason who delivers another fine performance in the film. Mason’s familiar voice and delivery add a chilling iciness that heighten the contrast between him and his opposition, the gravel-voiced, Frank Galvin. And another Lumet-friendly face is Edward Binns as the Bishop. Binns is another alum of 12 Angry Men. He played Juror #6. Rounding out the exemplary cast as far as main players go are Charlotte Rampling, who plays Laura Fischer, Galvin’s love interest (her role is much more involved than that but I won’t divulge how) and Milo O’Shea who plays Judge Hoyle who presides over the court case – unforgettable with that crazy hair and unruly eyebrows. All of these are wonderful performances! The Verdict however, is Paul Newman’s film.
Many of Hollywood’s top actor’s wanted to play Frank Galvin in this film, but I’m glad none of them got it as I can’t picture anyone other than Newman playing the role. These included Dustin Hoffman, Frank Sinatra, Robert Redford and even Cary Grant, who it is reputed, called the film’s producers to say, (paraphrasing), “Before I was ‘Cary Grant’ I could play this kind of character role.”
I’ll add, for my own indulgence, that I absolutely love the ending to The Verdict. I love the fact that it is not a sell-out, Hollywood ending as it could have easily been. Kudos to the film’s producer, Richard D. Zanuck and Sidney Lumet for fighting to keep it true to their vision as studio heads wanted the ending changed.
The Verdict received outstanding notices across the board when released in 1982 except from attorneys who made some noise in the media about how the character’s “maverick ways” are unethical. It was also a big commercial success and received five Academy Award nominations: Best, Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor for James Mason and Best Adapted Screenplay.
That year Ben Kingsley won the Oscar for Best Actor, riding on the crest that was Ghandi‘s massive sweep of almost every award possible. No disrespect meant for Ben Kingsley, but it was Paul Newman who deserved the Oscar that year – without a doubt. I don’t say that easily, by the way, as 1982 featured seriously stellar performances by several actors. Aside from Sir Kingsley’s, also in contention were Dustin Hoffman in Sydney Pollack’s, Tootsie, Peter O’Toole in Richard Benjamin’s, My Favorite Year, and delivering yet another superb performance for his role in Costa-Gavras’, Missing, was (be still my heart) Jack Lemmon.
As is all too often the case where the coveted golden statuette is concerned, Paul Newman would go on to win a Best Actor award four years later, but for the wrong movie when he won for Martin Scorsese’s, The Color of Money (1986). He was also given an honorary/lifetime achievement award in 1986 “In recognition of his many and memorable and compelling screen performances and for his personal integrity and dedication to his craft.” And the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1994. Mr. Newman also received a Best Picture nod for producing a 1968 Best Picture nominee, Rachel, Rachel.
In total, Paul Newman received nine Best Actor nominations in his career and was, without a doubt, one of the best actors of his generation – a character actor with movie star looks. Or, as some of us like to refer to him, the real deal – in life and on-screen.
So – I opened this post by noting The Verdict is one of the best courtroom dramas ever made and it is, but it is also much more than that. If you haven’t seen it and my comments have not made you curious then I’ll be more direct – see it! This remains a moving film, offering much of what makes drama worth paying the price of admission. In fact, it possesses much of what makes a movie a classic and as such it becomes the subject of a rare post-classic era entry on Once Upon a Screen, something that may well become a bit more commonplace as I reconsider the definition of “classic.”