ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: The Verdict
WEEK 22- "U and V"
Nominees: Ulee's Gold, Valley Girl, The Verdict, The Visitor, Viva Zapata!
Winner: The Verdict
Background: Nominated for five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor), David Mamet wrote and Sidney Lumet directed in 1982 one of the finest courtroom dramas you will ever see. As a matter of fact, according to the American Film Institute, it is the #4 courtroom drama of all-time, trailing only To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, and Kramer vs. Kramer. That's mighty fine company. Starring Paul Newman, Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling, and James Mason, it's one of the finest films of the decade, period.
The Verdict follows an alcoholic ambulance and obituary-chasing Boston attorney by the name of Frank Galvin. Played by the world-weary Paul Newman, in arguably the finest performance of his career, Frank has no steady clients, hasn't won a case in years, and spends most of his office hours slamming Irish whiskey and downing beer-drowned raw eggs for breakfast at a local bar. When his old legal partner Mickey Morrissey (the venerable Jack Warden) throws him an easy medical malpractice settlement case his way as a favor and an easy payday, Frank perks up at the chance to get some retirement money.
The case involves the family of a young woman who had a bad reaction to an anesthetic four years ago and has been in a vegetative state every since (echoing a real-life legal decision of the day). They are claiming malpractice against two prominent doctors at the city's renowed and respected Catholic hospital. In this legal matter, the chief defendant and deciding authority is the wealthy Archdiocese of Boston itself that runs the hospital. The Cardinal and his people have enlisted high-powered veteran attorney Ed Concannon (the masterful James Mason) to represent them. Upon meeting her family and observing the woman herself, the normally cynical Frank begins to have a change of heart to do the right thing.
When Frank denies the Archdiocese's extremely generous $210,000 settlement offer, he rolls the dice to take the case all the way to court. He wants to prove them wrong and prove himself as well. Frank then becomes a clear underdog versus Concannon's huge legal team, few witnesses, limited resources, and a judge (Milo O'Shea) seemingly in Concannon's pocket. As the case unfolds, many layers of influence (including an unlikely love interest in the form of Charlotte Rampling) and deceit are revealed.
Reaction: 5 STARS-- The Verdict is as good as advertised. Not only is it the top-shelf courtroom drama it is renowned to be thirty years later, the film is an outstanding character piece and a little bit of a lawyer's equivalent to a "one last score" job. I agree with my fellow Alphabet Film Club members who declare The Verdict Paul Newman's best performance of his career.
Cool Hand Luke is legendary, but I'll take Frank Galvin. I understand losing the Oscar to the epic performance of Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, but he was robbed far too many times before finally winning four years later for The Color of Money. Like George Clooney recently in The Descendants, Newman strips away the glamour of his stardom to convincingly play a petty man. Newman deftly takes his drunk-at-the-end-of-his rope and blossoms into a redeeming character deciding to change his life. The character's transformation is a pleasure and a triumph to watch.
Director Sidney Lumet surrounded Newman with excellent co-stars. Jack Warden is, as always, a steady presence who can hold his own with any co-star across from him. He's excellent, but the true supporting gem is James Mason. In one of his final roles before passing away two years later, Mason used his distinctively slithery voice and screen presence to play the heavy across the aisle to towering effectiveness. He too was nominated for an Academy Award, losing to Louis Gossett, Jr. from An Office and a Gentleman.
In three career Oscar nominations, he joins the list of many great character actors to never win the top award and statuette. Simply put, they don't make many actors like Mason anymore, where stoic words convey power over anger and fluster. Villains now eventually all fall into bombastic and feral trappings after starting out with words. Right, Ralph Fiennes?
To get back on track, the structure of The Verdict is flawless. David Mamet's Oscar-nominated screenplay is sharp at every turn and pushes a good pace. Somehow, he too has never won the big one and only has two career nominations. Sidney Lumet combines Mamet's words and his cast's performances to give every scene scintillating meaning and purpose. He and Mamet even take what would be a throw-away sidebar romance and give it bite and impact. Future action cinematographer and director Andrzej Bartkowiak (Speed and U.S. Marshals) cut his teeth doing atmospheric and intimate work here and in future early 1980's work with Terms of Endearment and Prizzi's Honor. Our Alphabet Film Club czars loved his angular work and sense of perspective and so did I. Altogether, The Verdict is a must-see legal drama with powerful performances and excellent tone. It's probably almost too good of a movie to be "under-seen" with this film club's goal, but something this good is always worth revisiting.
LESSON #1: REGAINING YOUR LOST LUSTER AND TALENT-- Frank Galvin was once a highly-touted law school graduate and a partner in a top firm before a bad loss sunk his career. Now, as an ambulance-chasing hack, he has lost his mojo before this malpractice case lights a fire within him. He makes the ballsy play to show "he's still got it" and prove that he's just as good as what he once was. In doing so, his talent reawakens.
LESSON #2: THE CONSTANT NEGATIVE PERCEPTION OF LAWYERS-- Like so many other stigmas, stereotypes, and dramatized examples from other sources, the various public characters within The Verdict vehemently share, on many occasions, their negative thoughts, opinions, apathy, disdain, and sometimes absolute hate of lawyers and the legal system they represent. You have one character (Galvin) that looks in the mirror and wants to correct that stigma, even if it is still true. Meanwhile, you have another (Concannon) who relishes the influence and power that he can wield within that broken system.
LESSON #3: JAMES MASON IS THE PRINCE OF F - - KING DARKNESS-- Speaking of Concannon, James Mason is a professional movie villain of the highest order. What grants him that title is the effectiveness by which he operates. To go with my praise of his use of words, Mason's disposition is smooth, intelligent, believable, and he backs his moves and motives with principles. Those villains are greater than those who come right out and act evil so overtly. Mason puts on a clinic in The Verdict on subversion and influence.
LESSON #4: ACTING WITH A FAITH IN JUSTICE-- We often forgot that, under the bad publicity and poor exposure made by dumb court cases and frivolous lawsuits, we Americans still have the greatest legal system in the world. Sure, it has its flaws, pot holes, and pitfalls, but I believe our predominant faith in the deserved justice that is possible from our legal system is still strong. The empowering component of that system is not within the judges that preside or the lawyers that spin their agenda, but with the jury of your peers that act with justice and do so from their hearts. No flawed system can defeat a heart of justice.
LESSON #5: MAKING THE CHOICE TO DO THE RIGHT THING OVER THE EASY THING-- Finally, the chief emotional arc of The Verdict is Frank Galvin's choice to take this malpractice case all the way to court against odds stacked against him. The easy way out, which characterized much of Frank's failed career up to that point, was to take the settlement money and call it a day. Frank dug deep and saw past that repeated mistake. He rediscovers the principle, responsibility, and conscience to do the right thing, even if the decision and road is a difficult one. Win or lose, Frank is redeemed by fighting the good fight.