starring Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason
screenplay by David Mamet, based on the novel by Barry Reed
directed by Sidney Lumet
by Jefferson Robbins It's never clear if disgraced lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a practicing Catholic, as are so many of the souls around him in a grey, hopeless Boston--but there's a crucifix on his office wall, and he sure has the posture down. Note how many times in Sidney Lumet's legal drama Newman is caught posed in the final stage of genuflection, Roman brow in profile, knuckle touched to lips. He's skipped making the sign of the cross and gone straight to kissing a nonexistent rosary. His is a corroded soul, though in David Mamet's screenplay construction, at least he knows it's corroded. Chasing any lawsuit that will end in a payday, Galvin lies right to the faces of dozens of people. In this, he's no better than his opponents in court, save that they lie through the proxy instruments of forgery and coached testimony, keeping their hands clean. They sail through the system frictionlessly, while Galvin feels himself dying a little each time--unless it's in the service of something greater. In his wanderings, windowpanes and desk fans cast the impression of a cross over him.
Lumet's autumnal picture, driven by dialogue that's at once economical and deeply disclosing of character and story, feels like something that couldn't happen today. Maybe some of its oppositions are too neat (the dusty solo practitioner and the vastly manipulative white-collar firm, the quest for a last chance and the gorgeous woman who's clearly trouble (Charlotte Rampling, so, duh)), but it doesn't let us forget Galvin's client, a woman left braindead and comatose by an anaesthetist's error in a Catholic Archdiocesan hospital. Galvin's conversion from money-grubbing drunk to principled knight errant transpires largely with Newman off-camera while we watch a set of Polaroid snapshots develop at the foot of a hospital bed. Newman builds on this passage masterfully, confronting absolute power with his valise always clutched protectively in his lap. But it's Lumet's Polaroid shot, as the client becomes a real person for us and for Galvin, that sticks in the heart.
The Verdict takes place almost entirely indoors. Lumet exhibits a great feel for these interiors, be it Galvin's claustrophobic, decaying office, the halls of justice where his characters pedeconference, the lawyer's favourite dive bar, or the paneled boardroom of the defendants' law firm, led by stately Ed Concannon (James Mason). It's all milky winter light in there, courtesy of DP Andrzej Bartkowiak, with well-chosen low-angle shots that reinforce Galvin's desperate moments. These spaces change with Galvin's fortunes, too--the more invested he grows in finding some kind of justice, the brighter and cleaner is his office. Rampling's character Laura, by contrast, shifts ever deeper into shadows as we see what she represents to Galvin and learn how compromised she's become. The actress's predatory stillness proves invaluable; by film's end, we might wonder if she was ever there at all. This is all very subtle, in a way not found in recent film dramas, which choose instead to telegraph every reversal and layer the musical score over every character beat. There is practically no music used here, save infrequent and nicely deployed interludes from composer Johnny Mandel.
The Verdict draws its power from some forgotten source, and it feels like the last breath of the '70s. Concannon's firm and the insurance company it represents--which stands to lose millions if Galvin's lawsuit succeeds--are the offspring of the shadowy power players in All the President's Men or The Parallax View, only more mundane in their goals and more smirky about achieving them. In this pre-Google era, they can still pull together a damning personal dossier without breaking a sweat. Nevertheless, you can tell something has shifted since the age of true paranoid cinema, because these antagonists operate more in the light than did their predecessors. And ultimately, none are truly malevolent--petty, venal, and invested in the status quo, yes, but not evil, and not all-powerful. A few years earlier (or maybe a few years later), the Catholic Church itself would've been the institution on trial.THE DVD
Featuring a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Fox's 2007 "Collector's Edition" DVD reissue of The Verdict seems to preserve the dry, chilly feel that Lumet wanted, avoiding oversaturation of colour (there isn't much to saturate) and presenting the sound in serviceable Dolby 2.0 stereo. This kind of minimalist presentation frankly augments the depression that clings to Galvin like a shroud. In his audio commentary, repurposed from the 2002 DVD, the late Lumet engages in some of the Academy-baiting for which he became known in his last decades. He doesn't recall who won the Oscar for Best Actor that year, but, he says, "Whoever won it, Paul was robbed." (Somewhere in Eastern Europe, on the set of a new Uwe Boll production, Sir Ben Kingsley is not even batting an eye.) Lumet is generous in singling out the talent that helped the film jell, both in front of and behind the camera, noting character actors, assistant directors, and longtime collaborators. (Wesley Addy, as the smooth physician at the centre of Galvin's case, comes in for especially fond plaudits.) Mamet owes Lumet a debt for salvaging his script--only his second produced film work--from the succession of drafts commissioned after it, all of which sought to make Galvin more sympathetic and thus exsanguinate the whole compelling story. Newman, of course, got the picture made by seeking out the distasteful lead role, and when he's on camera, Lumet acknowledges his star. "The slightest gesture, the slightest look, deep riches pour out," he says. Although the package bills this as a Lumet-Newman yakker, Newman's brief entrance comes with ten minutes left in the film. He mostly thanks his collaborators for being so wonderful.
Over on a second platter, an EPK contemporaneous with the film's release is dubbed "The Making of The Verdict" (9 mins.) and in part addresses the movie's roots in the novel by Barry Reed. I'm almost disappointed to see, in Newman's interview snippets, that Galvin's habit of putting knuckle to mouth is also the actor's habit. Director and star each get their own soapbox in twin showcases "Paul Newman: The Craft of Acting" (9 mins.) and "Sidney Lumet: The Craft of Directing" (11 mins.), and if The Verdict itself suggests a product of another time, so too does the phenomenon of film artists who've actually thought about their process and can fluently explain themselves in discussing it. Who's going to give us this kind of insight in coming years? Pitt and Fincher? Lumet and Newman were such extraordinary, intelligent creatures; we may never see their like again. "Milestones in Cinema History: The Verdict" (23 mins.) enrols Lumet, Newman, players like producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, and supporting star Lindsay Crouse, a former Mrs. Mamet--fitting for a featurette that also fleshes out the playwright's work on the adaptation. The Frank Galvin role was hotly sought-after, it turns out, with even Cary Grant nosing around it. An episode of the documentary series "Hollywood Backstories" (22 mins.) treads much of the same ground, albeit in a tabloid-TV format. The set wraps with a collection of trailers for eight classic Newman flicks from Fox, a stills gallery, and The Verdict's theatrical trailer. Originally published: April 28, 2011.