Bolstered by a strong Paul Newman performance and a tough screenplay from David Mamet, Sidney Lumet's The Verdict has a reputation as a powerhouse courtroom drama and a modern classic. Twenty-five years later, it's a slowly paced but moving experience that takes us through what should be a familiar story ... the regeneration of an alcoholic lawyer struggling to regain his dignity. The movie confirmed Paul Newman's top rank as he entered his late middle age, and does well by the rest of the cast, too. Mamet's unmannered screenplay emphasizes the weight of disgrace and failure while allotting a plum role to every supporting player. Each decade has its killer courtroom drama -- Anatomy of a Murder, To Kill a Mockingbird. The Verdict succeeds with some of the oldest theatrical games going. In a venal world of corrupt judges and ruthless litigators, an idealistic man still has a chance to prevail.
The Verdict has to be a superior job of moviemaking. Few 1980's films are as slowly paced or dark in mood. Grimy Frank Galvin is thrown out of funeral homes for pushing his business card on grieving widows; he drowns his failure in a street corner bar, or plays pinball to numb his brain. Under-lit scenes stress the hopelessness of Galvin's situation. He seems to have given up on life a long way back.
Other movies chronicle the recovery of an alcoholic or show a defeated spirit regrouping to tackle the world again, but The Verdict establishes a convincing atmosphere of dismay and despair. The young couple trying to get enough money to take care of their comatose relative just wants to scrape a life together, and don't realize that their lawyer is a lush who hasn't won a case in years. Galvin's only friend throws him the job for old time's sake but doesn't want to associate with him. The Bishop, the judge and the high-toned opposition lawyer have no problem telling Galvin to his face that he's a loser and had better take their offer and be grateful for it. But Galvin nurtures an old wound, an injustice in his past that robbed him of his initiative and idealism. This 'quickie settlement' case could be a chance to even old scores and set himself right with the world. He decides to fight out of sheer obstinacy and perhaps stupidity. It's not even defensible in terms of his clients, who are only asking for the quick payoff.
The Verdict grabs us because David Mamet's screenplay undercuts any notion that Frank Galvin will come from behind to win, or is for even a moment capable of outwitting the team of legal experts arrayed against him. He decides to go to trial without really knowing if the cocky doctor he's lined up as a witness will follow through on his promises. The defense team effectively controls all the hospital staff, leaving none as possible witnesses for Galvin's side. All Galvin has is the support of one cranky legal aid, and a new girlfriend in his bed back home.
Paul Newman plays Galvin as a pure character part, never making his old blue-eyed wink-contact with the audience or telegraphing that a breakthrough is even possible. What's even more incredible, Newman goes for the spirit of the story instead of polishing his star persona. When the big dramatic moments occur in the story, the focus is on other actors. James Mason is the crafty trial lawyer described as "The Prince of Fxxxing Darkness". Instead of oozing his usual disdain, Mason saves it up for his devastating performance at trial. Jack Warden is fed up with Galvin even before the film starts, and only begins to feel sorry for him after he's run out of insults. Able talents like Julie Bovasso (Moonstruck) and Roxanne Hart get solid opportunities abusing Galvin or making him feel guilty. And secondary support character Lindsay Crouse is given the film's most devastating scene. Newman is off camera throughout, merely an observer.
Crouse was screenwriter David Mamet's wife at the time of filming, but neither of them owe any explanations -- the scene is dynamite. Mamet's later trademark cyclical dialogue patterns are here but in a more restrained form, as when a harried witness wails, "Who were these men? Who were these men? I wanted to be a nurse!" or when Milo O'Shea's slippery Judge Hoyle keeps repeating, "I have no sympathy for you." The weight of Mamet's dialog is a good match for Sidney Lumet's dour direction, that lingers on drab exteriors and isn't afraid to let scenes play in a static long shot when appropriate. Some of the best material in the picture sees Frank Galvin hit a wall of emotional desperation, becoming so wound up that he cannot even catch his breath. Lumet lets it play without a hint of self-indulgence.(spoiler - if you haven't seen the movie, skip the next paragraph)
Some detractors say that The Verdict cheats because Frank Galvin doesn't win his case as much as it falls in his lap. Frank perhaps did get lucky, but he went the extra mile and got the witness that would turn the courtroom upside down, even if he himself didn't know where the final surprise would come from. Frank doesn't give up and does his best -- what more do we want from him? If this reviewer has reservations, it's that The Verdict doesn't look forward to the next step in the process, the appeal that Ed Concannon will undoubtedly launch. If the opposition can get a retrial, Galvin won't be able to put the key bit of evidence before the jury at all. How many times have we heard about enormous monetary awards in court cases, only to have legal rebuttals and delaying tactics stall payouts for years, or until they're overturned?
The Verdict is an old story in a solid retelling that never fails to get a positive audience reaction. Try to see it without having any of its surprise twists revealed.
Fox's Collector's Edition of The Verdict is a fine enhanced transfer. It flatters Andrzej Bartkowiak's rich photography, which courts dark corners and dim barrooms without succumbing to grain or image softness. The track is crystal clear for the 'don't miss a line' script ... theater audiences watched this one in silent concentration.
Director Lumet is heard on a leisurely but pleasant commentary track, held over from the previous edition. I skipped around and listened to quite a bit of the commentary but never caught Paul Newman, so he must be in for only a prerecorded statement or two. Lumet describes the casting and praises his cast. He doesn't shirk from talking about problems on the set, as when a hair in the gate necessitated the reshooting of Paul Newman's entire courtroom summation. In another incident, Newman was nearly killed when a bank of heavy lights fell from the rafters of the set.
Disc two starts with the uncredited The Making of The Verdict from when the movie was new; it has the feel of a hasty EPK promo, but gives us a look at the book author Barry Reed. Constantine Nasr of New Wave produced the next three featurettes. Paul Newman: The Craft of Acting contains a thoughtful new interview with Newman, who praises Lumet's rehearsal process. Sidney Lumet: The Craft of Directing gives the director his due. He offers a quiet and informative set of observations -- the difference between actors trained on the stage and those who aren't, etc. He also kicks around the Auteur Theory to uphold the idea of collaboration, a subject frequently addressed when a director interview runs dry. Milestones in Cinema History: The Verdict is a general revisit of the show with Newman and Lumet plus added input from Linsdsay Crouse, Darryl Zanuck, David Brown and others. It includes a full discussion of David Mamet's involvement. We also hear that Cary Grant and Dustin Hoffman wanted to play the Frank Galvin role. The script was changed over several drafts by Robert Redford, but Lumet eventually reverted to the original Mamet version.
From there we go to a full Hollywood Backstories episode on the film, which covers all the same material from a glitzier POV. Also added are a trailer, trailers for several other Paul Newman pictures released by Fox, and a still gallery.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Verdict (Collector's Edition) rates:
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