Paul Newman will always be amiable outlaw Butch Cassidy. He'll always be Henry Gondorff from The Sting. I've seen a lot of Newman's films from a career that spanned six decades, but not all of them. My biggest gap is probably the 1980s which as I look into it, is a big old knowledge gap. Newman was nominated for three different Oscars for acting during that decade, including a supremely strong performance in 1982's The Verdict.
A Boston lawyer who's fallen on some extremely tough times, Frank Galvin (Newman) isn't what he used to be. Once a promising lawyer, Galvin is an alcoholic, an ambulance chaser who has had only four cases over the previous three years. And he lost every single one of them. There's a new case on his schedule though, seemingly a slam dunk. A young woman giving birth was given the wrong anesthetic and four years later still remains in a coma in a nursing home. The hospital the event occurred in was a Catholic hospital with the archdiocese looking to move on from the incident, looking to settle without going to trial though. A huge payday is in the waiting, both for the plaintiff's family but also for Galvin for his fee. Something clicks in the experienced lawyer's mind though. Something just not right. He turns down a generous settlement and decides to go to trial. Though his intentions are pure, Galvin may be in far over his head.
This 1982 courtroom drama from director Sidney Lumet aired recently as part of Turner Classic Movie's 31 Days of Oscar. It's based off a screenplay from David Mamet of Glengarry Glen Ross and The Untouchables fame among others. Oh, and that Paul Newman guy is pretty good. I'd never seen this movie before -- not even a scene -- but I'm glad I caught up with it. Somber, even downbeat, with a harsh story to tell, it deserves the reputation it has. I loved Lumet's shooting style with an unobtrusive camera that simply films the action. It isn't moving frenetically with zooms and close-ups. Lumet sets the camera up and lets the cast act. Just ACT. We get long, uninterrupted scenes of dialogue where Newman and his co-stars have the audience's full attention. In an age where movies are all about the style, it's refreshing to see a movie so uninterested. Here's the story, the cast, and the acting. Go and do your thing.
The heart of the movie -- not so surprisingly -- is an excellent performance from Paul Newman, a performance that earned him a Best Actor nomination (he lost to Ben Kingsley's Ghandi). This isn't Butch or Gondorff or Fast Eddie, a confident world-beater with a smile on his face. Newman brings to life a lawyer riddled with self-pity who drinks and drinks, trying to put his past behind him. At one point, he was a damned good lawyer but a decision he makes for the good...almost finishes him. It's a fascinating character, one you're rooting for but with a grain of salt. You can't help but wonder how he's going to miss this seemingly gimme of a case up in the courtroom. Most memorable is just the quietness of Galvin. Newman doesn't have huge, LOOK AT ME moments. It is a quiet, subtle performance with the most emotional scene coming in his closing statement. My other favorite? The moment he makes the decision to take the case to trial, a quiet moment sitting by the patient's bed. Just good stuff.
This isn't the deepest of casts, but what's there is choice. Also picking up an Oscar nomination -- for Best Supporting Actor -- is James Mason as Concannon, the defense lawyer who at one point is dubbed the Angel of Death. No plan, no scheme, no bribe is too much for this lawyer who will get his defendants acquitted at all costs. Charlotte Rampling is excellent too as Laura, a woman coming off a divorce that Galvin meets in a bar and starts to help the beat-up lawyer in his case. In a thankless role, Jack Warden nonetheless makes the most of it as Morrisey, Galvin's former professor and current friend who becomes his right-hand man in the case. Also look for Milo O'Shea, Edward Binns, and Joe Seneca in key supporting roles.
Like the best courtroom dramas, 'Verdict' makes you feel like you're there in the courtroom as part of the jury. And as usual, what's my biggest takeaway? The American court system is a frightening one. Nothing is off limits including straight-up cheating, bribes and all sorts of letter of the law garbage. The idea of the court system is impressive, built on an ideal of justice as Galvin describes. In reality, it just isn't the same. Winning the case takes priority regardless of the means. We see that over and over again as the case develops, in and out of the courtroom.
'Verdict' becomes a little predictable in its second half, but it's never dull or disappointing. I especially liked the somewhat open-ended finale with Newman -- again -- nailing a quiet, dignified scene. Yes, it's a courtroom drama, but more accurately, this is a character study of a talented lawyer who's fallen on some hard times and sees a chance at some sort of redemption, both for the family he's trying to get a settlement but also for himself. Just an excellent all-around movie, most notable for Newman's Oscar-nominated performance.
The Verdict (1982): *** 1/2 /****