After watching Paul's performance in The Verdict, Judge Tom Becker finds himself becoming Newman's own cheering section.
Frank Galvin has one last chance at a big case.
1982 was a banner year for well-made "movie movies." It was the year of An Officer and a Gentleman, ET, Tootsie, and The Verdict, which was widely regarded as Paul Newman's Oscar® role (until Ben Kingsley and Gandhi fever took hold). The Verdict was an old-fashioned star vehicle, and Newman took it and ran with it. Does his performance—and the film—live up to the hype 25 years later?
Facts of the Case
Frank Galvin (Paul Newman, The Hustler) is a mess—a chain smoking, alcoholic, lawyer-on-the-skids kind of mess. When he was younger, Frankie had it good (pretty wife, partner in a high-profile Boston firm), but things happened that shook Frankie to his core, and that core crumbled. Now he haunts funeral homes, passing his business card off to the bereaved.
Frankie's friend, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden, Shampoo) sometimes throws him a case and lets him share the office. But since Frank never wins a case, that arrangement is on borrowed time. Morrissey has one more case for Frank, a no-brainer: a young woman in a coma because of a medical mishap. It's just a matter of collecting a settlement from the Archdiocese of Boston, which runs the hospital.
Frank is fine with a little easy money until he talks to a doctor who fills him in on the case and spends a little time with the injured woman…then he gets to thinking. Could he take this one on and actually win? But the Archdiocese is represented by the firm of Edward Concannon (James Mason, Georgy Girl), and they never lose. Could this be Frank's ticket to redemption? Or will it be the last stop on fast train to oblivion?
Paul Newman really did have it all. His blue-eyed good looks were legend. He had a successful marriage, the respect of his peers, and an enviable career with no disastrous missteps. Politically active, he was untouched by scandal, if not tragedy: His only son, Scott, died of a drug overdose at age 28 in 1978.
Frank Galvin was unlike any character Newman had played before. Craggy faced and sloppy, dissipated and pathetic, he is not an anti-hero like Luke Jackson or Eddie Felson; perhaps this is where the anti-heroes end up when the good looks and charm of their youth fade. Newman's Galvin is an alcoholic, a drinker who is beyond being a drunk. As Newman plays it, alcohol is a part of Frank, it's in his make up, and he drinks throughout the picture. We see it less as the film goes on, but we know it is always there. Sobriety (or some form of it) might be a byproduct of redemption, but it is not the path to it.
At first, Frank uses the notion of justice for the injured woman as a sales pitch. As he comes to grasp the humanity of the situation, the pitch becomes an affirmation, and he transforms, gradually and naturally, back to a semblance of the man he was before, when he had promise.
Newman's performance is quite simply amazing, honest and agonizing, but never showy or "actory." This is Newman at the top of his game, and I believe he has never been better.
There is something about the film that is decidedly, almost defiantly, old-fashioned. Much of this has to do with the direction. While I've always appreciated the performances he gets from his actors, I've often found Lumet's direction to be a bit flat and his films sometimes didactic. This film has given me a new respect for Lumet, with his clean compositions in cluttered rooms, cityscapes that dwarf the characters without overwhelming them, and all that space for the actors to breathe. There is a sequence in Frank's office when he finds the case slipping away and panics. Lumet films the sequence in a medium-long shot, the camera tilted slightly up, and holds the shot for the length of the scene (3 ½ minutes). There is no camera movement at all, just a perfect confluence of acting, writing, and directing to create suspense.
Lumet avoids glamour shots, with many scenes either dark or harshly lit. This extends to his cast. Newman is no pretty boy here, and as his love interest, Charlotte Rampling's haggard beauty is a natural fit. As for the supporting players, let's just say that concealer seems to have not been a big budgetary consideration. These are the faces of real people, lined, sagging, marked, not slick Hollywood stars, and the look and sound of the actors (Boston accents and second-generation Irish brogues) lend an air of both realism and gravitas to the proceedings.
Mamet's script is solid, if not entirely plausible; for instance, if this is an easy case being represented by a known screw up such as Galvin, why does Concannon seemingly have the whole firm on red alert? Doesn't this fearsome shark of a lawyer have any other cases? But this is what makes it a "movie movie," and we accept these detours from reality because they make for a better film. What works wonderfully throughout is Mamet's dialogue, which is crisp, witty, and true to his characters. Newman took on what Mamet gave him and did not insist on changes to nicen up the character. Mercifully, there are no "big" scenes, the great breakdown or outburst that is generally part and parcel of a showcase role. He comes close a couple of times: In an emotional scene with Rampling, he flees to the safety of the bathroom, but what you expect to happen—the great opening up—doesn't happen at all. The film and Newman are stronger for it.
In the extras department, Fox has really gone all out in making this a truly special edition. Disc One contains an audio commentary by Lumet, with a few words from Newman. This was apparently carried over from a previous release, and it is quite good. Lumet talks almost continually, covering different topics as the scenes inspire him. He touches on the lighting design, color scheme, praises the actors and offers anecdotes, and gives us some insight into his technique, including his feeling on the overuse of close-ups-note how little cross-cutting between faces there is in this film and how many scenes are played in medium to long shots for better effect. Newman pops in near the two-hour mark and makes a couple of generically positive comments. The package boasts "Audio commentary with director and star," and I would call this a cheat if Lumet's track wasn't so entertaining and informative.
Disc Two gives us a raft of features, three created in 2006, apparently for this release. There are two features on craft, one with Lumet, the other with Newman, both specific to The Verdict. They are interesting, with Lumet's being more expansive and enlightening. "Milestones in Cinema History: The Verdict" focuses more on Mamet's script. At 23 minutes, it's a bit overlong and, taken with everything else, a tad redundant, but I wouldn't call it filler. An episode of AMC's Hollywood Backstories offers interviews with the major players, including producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, and lots of tidbits and trivia. During the commentary, Lumet mentions a star who had been attached to the project but insisted on trying to rework the script to clean up the Frank Galvin character and make him more heroic. Backstories identifies the star: Robert Redford. There's also a nine minute Making of…featurette. Now, I know these "Making ofs" are just promo pieces, but I'm a sucker for them. In addition to enjoying the archival footage, I find it interesting to see how the studio was marketing the film. Taken together, these extras give about as complete a picture of The Verdict as one could hope to find. Of course, they give away virtually every plot point, so watch the movie first.
The transfer is solid, if a bit grainy in some of the film's many dark scenes. Both English-language audio options were fine for the dialogue-driven film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'd never seen The Verdict, and I was expecting a cynical commentary on the justice system. Maybe I'm just more cynical than Lumet and Mamet, but I didn't find the court-case aspects of the film to be particularly thought-provoking-interesting and clever, absolutely, but there was nothing particularly shocking about Concannon's tactics, save for one element that was more theatrical than realistic. It could be that the many high-profile trials we've seen over the past quarter century, and our access to information about them through the Internet and cable, have made us less trusting of how justice is meted out. Ultimately, though, the court case at the center of this story is something of a McGuffin. The real story is watching the re-emergence of Frank Galvin, and that works just fine.
The Verdict gives us a cinematic lion at the beginning of his winter. Sidney Lumet says that although he can't remember who won the Oscar® that year, "Paul was robbed." I tend to agree. A couple of weeks ago, Newman announced that, at 82, he is too old to act and would no longer be accepting roles. Time and tides are inevitable, but this retirement adds a dash of poignancy to this release of what is arguably his finest performance in a good, if not great, movie.
Even a soused Frank Galvin would win this one. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman
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