The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982)

Oh, how time can change a person.  It can change a person’s mindset, or philosophy, or any single way of going about something.  In the case of “The Verdict,” this is true for the director, Sidney Lumet, and the star, Paul Newman: two masters of their respective craft who through decades of honing their talents became legends.  In a way, the development of these two artists mirrors that of “The Verdict’s” protagonist, the alcoholic, washed up attorney Frank Galvin (Newman).  With what credibility he once had a distant memory and with nothing to lose (or rather nothing left to lose), Frank takes on a malpractice case against the Boston Archdiocese and two of its doctors who put a healthy, pregnant woman into a permanent coma.  Mishap after mishap later, the decision to remain persistent with the case seems like a foolish one, but this supposedly unwinnable case does something to Frank: it changes him, matures him, brings him out of his worthless existence by doing something with his life that has meaning.  And in a similar vein, “The Verdict” marked a change in Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman (not that their lives and work were meaningless before this, of course) that, also in the same vein as the redemption of Frank Galvin, would permanently solidify their reputations.

Take Lumet, for instance.  His very first feature film, “12 Angry Men,” was the ultimate champion of the innocent until proven guilty principle of the court system.  Occurring in mostly real-time, we watch the jury in that hot, constrictive little room go over every little piece of evidence in weighing the alleged guilt of a boy accused of murdering his father.  Did the kid do it?  We never actually find out, and to be honest he probably did do it.  But, there was a reasonable doubt, so our wide range of jurors eventually did the right thing with their verdict.  But a quarter-century later, Lumet and his just as legendary screenwriter David Mamet churn out “The Verdict,” which takes a similar courtroom setting but shifts the focus entirely.  Gone is Lumet’s noble championing of the law to a T, replaced now with an emphasis on, simply, attaining justice. 

From the start, things ain’t looking pretty for poor Frank.  His star witness is a no-show, his replacement expert witness is completely dressed down…by the biased judge of all people, and the most important testimony of all is stricken from the record on a technicality.  Now, in the world of a younger Lumet’s “12 Angry Men,” the jury deliberation and verdict would be open-and-shut.  But the surprising result of the trial tells us that this ain’t the young prodigy filmmaker who made “12 Angry Men.”  The focus here isn’t on an institution like guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but on the principle of justice at any cost: justice for the wronged, and from our perception, justice for Frank.  That’s the difference between some shitty courtroom drama on TV and “The Verdict”: any other show or movie would try to keep you focused on the case itself, but here, the case is a metaphor for the redemption of Frank Galvin.  The impossible odds of winning the case are representative of his downfall into alcoholic nothingness, and winning the case would represent the return of meaning in this man’s life.  The victim, a vegetable, doesn’t garner our sympathy.  Her flawed attorney, the burnt out guy doing all the work, does.  And if some of the plot developments and eventual resolution seem unlikely, well, so does the redemption of such an initially despicable character.  Unlikely, but fitting…and enormously satisfying.  Yes, Lumet’s and Mamet’s focus on an unlikely triumph for justice differs from a young Lumet’s adherence to our great and effective judicial system and its principles in “12 Angry Men…” but is it a better, or more mature, or more maverick and adventurous principle that Lumet focuses on 25 years later?  I don’t think so.  I think they’re just two sides of one coin, two themes that each work in their own way in two great movies, and thematically, this doesn’t necessarily show a maturation or redemption of Sidney Lumet a la the redemption of Frank Galvin.  It’s just a filmmaker showing his vast gift for variety.

One thing that doesn’t change for Lumet, though, in that vast career is his technical skill.  He’s always been one of those director’s commentary filmmakers…it would certainly behoove someone to listen to this man speak, in interviews or indeed director’s commentary, to understand his impeccable attention to detail, how every shot and camera movement and character staging means something.  You’ve got “12 Angry Men,” which takes place almost entirely in a tiny room, yet a film where the camera’s gradual movement from high angle to low angle make that setting more and more claustrophobic.  Or, there’s “Network,” where colors gradually become less muted and the focus shifts from backstage at the ludicrous UBF “news” broadcast to the broadcast itself, turning you into a mindless consumer in the process.  And now comes “The Verdict,” where Lumet’s eye for staging and sense of symmetry is perhaps more muted than in those other films, but just as effective.  There’s the recurring shot of Frank playing pinball in that dark bar every morning: a loud and boisterous game that’s an ironic contrast to the darkest depths of Frank’s conflicted soul.  There’s the courtroom scenes themselves: simply shot, yet beginning with the vastness of the huge chamber, eventually getting a little too close to the nervous Frank or the uncomfortable witnesses.  They might be the best-photographed courtroom scenes of all time.  There’s a shot in the hotel room of Frank’s girlfriend Laura, her to the right in the foreground, and Frank, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, to the left and in the background…she’s strong, and he’s weak.  And later in a bar, the camera ominously and very slowly closes in on Laura when Frank learns a terrible secret.  It’s shots like these that demonstrate Lumet’s incredible attention to detail and subtly put us in the fractured mindset of Frank Galvin.  And that’s the reason why “The Verdict” rises above other courtroom dramas: it’s from a particular point of view, and a vastly flawed point of view at that, whose livelihood, and soul, depend on the outcome of this case, so that we feel that there’s so much more at stake than some cash reward.

Of course, we can’t begin to understand Frank, or empathize with him, without a strong performance.  Enter Paul Newman.  Or, to be more precise, enter a Paul Newman that’s like no Paul Newman we saw prior to “The Verdict.”  Gone is the cool, tough sex symbol of the 60s.  Newman needed to be weak and pathetic and tired to play Frank Galvin, and he succeeds.  In my own little retrospective of the late Paul Newman, it makes sense I would watch “The Verdict” right after “Cool Hand Luke,” because they provide the perfect contrast between these two Newmans, and how this actor, like his director, and the protagonist, in this film, changed.  In “Cool Hand Luke,” Newman was the epitome of young and rebellious, becoming a folk hero in the process.  Years later in “The Verdict,” that cynical charisma becomes depression, and fatigue, and desperation.  That deep yet confident voice of the past is now gravelly and despondent.  Those startling blue eyes now epitomize exhaustion and carry the weight of a worn out man who’s been through too much and can’t take much more.  I said recently that Albert Finney’s performance in “Under the Volcano” was the most convincing drunk performance I’ve seen.  Paul Newman’s performance in “The Verdict” is much different: it’s not a drunk performance (there are only a select few scenes where Frank is actually drunk), but that of a worn-down shell of a man who happens to drink…frequently.  Finney’s character relished the drink and was genuinely addicted.  We don’t get that feeling from Frank Galvin.  He drinks, but doesn’t seem to enjoy it, and the focus here is on the tired, long-standing effects of years of doing nothing, rather than the immediate effect of alcohol on the brain.  Until he redeems himself with this malpractice case, he’s not in an alcohol-induced stupor – he’s in the much grander stupor of a life without meaning.

Consider those pinball scenes.  In the first, that opens the film, the camera slowly moves in on Frank as he pushes those buttons: the noises from the machine are loud, but Newman’s face remains fixed in an expressionless daze – I’m not even sure if he’s looking down at the ball.  Or there’s a later pinball scene, the morning after he’s gotten lucky with Laura, when he’s actually concentrating on that stupid game, and has that child-like glee when he has a high score.  Same setting, same ambient sound, same camera placement, but it’s Newman alone that makes the two scenes radically different.  It’s a clear instance of the changing mindset of Frank, but you have to look at the film as a whole to appreciate the nuanced performance that Newman gives to subtly change his character.  Early on, we seem this ambulance chaser appallingly going to various funeral homes, peddling his services to grieving widows.  When he meets a potential star witness, he practically begs him for information.  It’s pathetic, but when the man provides key information, Frank’s effusive “yippee!” is so unexpected, we’re shocked…as I’m sure Frank is.  Or, when Frank’s on the phone in his shitty office scrambling to find witnesses on short notice, there’s a shakiness to his voice that really shows us that he’s nervous, and desperate.  When giving his opening statement to the jury, he stops and starts after every word or two, unable to put a coherent thought together.  But later, as he gives his closing statement, knowing full well that he will probably lose, there’s a confidence that we would’ve thought impossible before.  Before, Newman’s only showed us shades of alcoholism: jolly drunk, violent drunk, and morose hangover.  Frank was a lost soul.  But now, after taking up a likely impossible cause that he saw as being right, he’s redeemed himself, and shown us the energetic and well-meaning man that he might once have been.  And it all boils down to that final shot, juxtaposing Frank and another key character who’s undergone change: the two started out as something, intertwined, and are now each at the opposite end of the spectrum from where they started, and it’s that final pose and body language of Newman, and Lumet’s eye for detail, that espouse this perfectly.

The film’s not without its flaws.  A colleague and friend initially gives Frank the case out of pity as an easy out-of-court settlement, but Frank bravely (or stupidly) decides to take it to trial once he visits the comatose woman in the hospital.  That sudden sense of purpose practically goes off like a lightbulb.  It’s rushed, and a lot of the plot developments in “The Verdict” are unlikely, but this is just about unforgivable.  There’s also lots of stretches of sentimental, get up when you’re down dialogue that bordered on preachiness, David Mamet style, that I could’ve done without.  It’s ironic that I wish there was less dialogue in a courtroom drama of all films, so that Paul Newman’s body language, for instance, would do all the talking.  And for much of “The Verdict,” it does.  In fact, the way the film shows its audience every step of the process of a major trial from both sides is just about impeccable.  We see the ironic contrast between Frank and his ragtag team of his colleague and his girlfriend scrambling to find a witness in that drab office, while the snooty defense attorney orders around seemingly dozens of underlings like a general in what has to be the nicest office in Boston.  While the defense practically uses covert ops to undermine Frank’s case with ease, Frank literally runs down dark, cold streets to find this witness or that. 

Despite the flaws, it’s stuff like that which truly make “The Verdict” a compelling David vs. Goliath story: not necessarily Frank vs. the unflinching defense team, but rather Frank vs. the Goliath of his own demons.  His fight against the Archdiocese is just a stand-in for his fight against his own self-imposed spiral into nothingness, in one last attempt to pick up the pieces for something good.  And when you combine a flawed yet compelling protagonist with that painstaking attention to detail of the ins and outs of the legal system, you’ve got one hell of a drama.  Years before, Sidney Lumet set the standard for the “behind the courtroom drama” (the jury drama, if you will).  A quarter-century later, he just about set the standard for the courtroom drama itself.

9/10

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