The Verdict [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #26]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #26–which puts me over halfway there. However, we are well over halfway through my 51st year, so I’ve got to step it up a bit.  Spoilers ahead.  

The Verdict

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Release Date:  December 8, 1982
My age then:  12 years old

What it is about:  Disgraced, alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin gets involved in a medical malpractice suit on behalf of a woman who is in a coma. At first there just win a hefty settlement, he becomes emotionally invested in the suffering of the victim, and becomes determined to win the case in court. His case goes through many setbacks, including discovering that his new girlfriend Laura is really a spy for the opposition. In the end, Frank’s passionate summation wins the jury to his side, as Frank begins to regain his self-respect.

Starring Paul Newman as Frank Galvin, James Mason as opposing attorney Ed Concannon, Charlotte Rampling as Frank’s girlfriend Laura Fischer, Jack Warden as Frank’s friend and mentor Mickey Morrissey, Lindsay Crouse as a key witness, Milo O’Shea as an unsympathetic judge, Wesley Addy as one of the doctors whose reputation is on the line, Joe Seneca as a doctor called in by Frank to offer an expert opinion, and Roxanne Hart and James Handy as the sister of the victim and her husband. Bruce Willis and Tobin Bell apparently both make uncredited early appearances as courtroom observers.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I had seen some of this movie on TV when I was very young, but my only memory of it was the actual scene where the verdict was delivered. I knew how it would turn out, and I vaguely remembered the shot where the camera pushes in on Paul Newman as he hears the news. Otherwise, I’ve just heard that it was a well-received legal drama starring a well-respected leading man.

Reality: My wife and friend, who both watched the film around the same time as me, found it to be good but a bit slow. I didn’t mind that–it is slow, or steady-paced anyway, but compelling and clear, and it held an unwavering hold on my attention.

The best characters from the richest dramas have usually got a mixture of heroic and selfish qualities–this is certainly true of Frank Galvin. Paul Newman’s performance rightly was nominated for an Oscar–his Frank Galvin strikes right balance between broken and selfish. He’s in equal parts admirable and reprehensible–both overwhelmed by his personal demons and failings, but also full of grit and ingenuity, and determined to do whatever is necessary to reach his goals (including a bit of petty larceny and no small amount of lying!)

He is ably supported by Jack Warden as his main ally, Milo O’Shea as a terrible judge, and especially by James Mason as the opposing attorney.

James Mason is an actor I’ve heard of more than I’ve actually seen in things–although I previously watched him in this series in Murder by Decreebut after The Verdict I am a definite fan. He makes Ed Concannon into a brilliantly thoughtful antagonist, ruthlessly logical and despicable (though not evil) for his cold-heartedness.

And Charlotte Rampling (another performer whose name I’m more familiar with than her work) is also excellent as the enigmatic Laura Fischer, whose secrets turn out to be more relevant to the case at hand than anyone would have guessed. The revelation of her betrayal is one of the better-delivered plot twists I’ve seen anytime recently.

In fact, one of the real strengths of the film (aside from all this brilliant acting and David Mamet’s excellent script) is the restrained and cinematic way the story is told. There are numerous sequences in which dialogue is kept to a minimum, but in which complex story and character points are still communicated with crystal clarity thanks to simple but creative cinematography and editing. A great example is the ending, in which a clearly drunk Laura attempts to call Frank, but he refuses to answer the phone. The simple scene makes its point (that Frank is rising up from own personal hell even as Laura descends into hers) more strongly than pages of dialogue could have in the hands of lesser filmmakers.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? This is one of those films that is the complete package. We’ve got great supporting characters, a brilliant screenplay, excellent direction, effective production design and editing, and everything else one wants from a movie. But it will always stand out for Paul Newman’s gripping and performance, which even though it involves a courtroom trial that is ultimately won on his appeal to the jury completely avoids any trace of schmaltz or sentimentality.

See here for the Master List.

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