Genre: Legal Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs. 9 min.
Release Date: December 17th, 1982 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sidney Lumet Actors: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason, Milo O’Shea, Lindsay Crouse
t’s not the editing or the pacing or the cinematography or the music or even the story that sets “The Verdict” apart from other courtroom dramas. It’s the acting, led by the inimitable Paul Newman, and the character’s brilliantly scripted, nicely nuanced interactions with unfolding events that makes the film so enjoyable. The lead role starts in a state of decline before rising up to regain some self-respect, his career, and that incredibly illusive idea of justice. Though the film may not retain the realism of a present day courtroom, it is entirely effective as a piece of compelling fiction, especially as it cinematically conveys the Davids and Goliaths, the stubbornness of long-standing institutions, and the moral wars inherent in litigation.
In Massachusetts, Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a “very fine attorney” (or, at least, he used to be years ago before a crooked near-disbarment destroyed his image) who likes alcohol a bit too much and surfs obituary pages in the newspaper to snag clients. As he sinks deeper into the bottle and depression, his longtime friend and mentor Mickey (Jack Wardon) brings him a simple, winnable case: a healthy woman, Deborah Ann Kaye, is delivering her third child and is given the wrong anesthetic, resulting in a permanent coma and the death of the baby.
Everyone wants to settle, although expert witness Dr. David Gruber, who personally beheld the clear-cut medical malpractice, wants justice – “the right thing.” The hospital, St. Catherine’s, is governed by the archdiocese, represented by senior lawyer Ed Concannon (James Mason). They bring an enticing offer of $210,000, so that Frank will look the other way. Deborah’s sister merely seeks the money, but in a brash decision, the overconfident lawyer decides to take the case to trial for a much larger sum, an opportunity to stand up for the vegetative victim, and a chance at exposing the unacceptable negligence of the chief doctors.
The diocese has a huge group of lawyers, grand facilities, better counterintelligence, and considerable financial persuasions – and Frank even has to deal with an unfair judge. With all of that against him, as an undeniable underdog, he’s still not a very likeable character. But reform and redemption in an anti-hero are always rewarding transformations to watch. Before the trial starts, Frank has already conceded, as he’s robbed of a key witness (bribed to flee the country) and he routinely loses little maneuvers in the courtroom. He’s out of ideas and out of time. If only there was something truly sloppy, some hugely heinous cover-up to locate…
Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling) is a love interest introduced just for the sake of having a female character. Her presence has very little impact on Frank or the story, despite an unexpected surprise and the setup for a superbly fitting closing shot. Even her dialogue is there for unimportant segues as Frank’s motivation and reasoning gradually evolve. Perhaps Galvin should have suspected her unnecessary placement. “The Verdict” also brings up the hilarity of striking testimony from the record and the minds of the jury after they’ve already seen and heard a damaging witness. It’s a classically humorous courtroom dilemma that wouldn’t be tolerated nowadays. But as Frank admits, the court doesn’t exist to give justice – just to offer a chance at justice.
– Mike Massie