Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.
And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meeting Sydney Pollack on the sly and axed him, bringing in Lumet, who ceded to Mamet’s version, which also met with Newman’s approval.
Lumet was concerned the rewrites were moving away from Mamet’s grit (in an adaptation of Barry Reed’s novel). Of which, despite the lack of the writer’s familiar staccato rhythms, you can tell his involvement just from the frequency with which Jack Warden’s Mickey says “fuck”. True, the occasional narrative device perhaps isn’t the deftest (Charlotte Rampling’s love interest, revealed as a tool of the opposition to keep tabs on Frank’s progress, is thematically coherent, but still feels very much a “device” of Hollywood narrative concoction). Yet Mamet resists the urge to grandstand with speeches (we are told he only actually put the verdict in on the insistence of Lumet; satisfying as it is, you can see how that version would be more fitting/appropriate), and, when he reveals his workings, the mechanics elicit admiration rather than groans.
For example, when presented with a surprise witness (Mamet’s then wife Lindsay Crouse, Mamet pulling the last-minute testimony card to spellbinding effect), defence attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason) makes the same novice mistake Frank did earlier. He asks a question in court to which he doesn’t know the answer. In this case, it would straightforwardly have cost Concannon the trial, if not for the partiality of Milo O’Shea’s odious presiding judge. He does still lose, but that’s down to Frank’s final appeal to the jury, swaying them even though the crucial testimony has been disregarded. Apparently, Frank’s tack, appealing to the jury as “the law”, known as jury nullification, is frowned upon, but no one watching would begrudge him, given the way the odds have been continually and resoundingly stacked against him.
In part this makes The Verdict a classic “David and Goliath” tale, an irresistible layer on top of courtroom theatrics being generally irresistible anyway. Frank’s client was left in a vegetative state, following the administering of the wrong anaesthetic during childbirth. The hospital happens to belong the Archdiocese of Boston, so naturally has the resources to secure the services of the “Prince of Darkness” (Concannon; Mamet’s obviously enjoying himself with the duality of their representative’s nickname). By the ’90s we’d have legal dramas (Murder One springs to mind) in which the enormous team of supporting lawyers is on the hero’s side; here, it’s an indication of all that is corrupt and inimical to fair play.
That said, though, Frank’s motives are hardly spotless. He may be fighting for a higher ideal, exposing the dodgy doctors (and by implication the dodgy Boston Roman Catholic establishment; see also the recent Spotlight), but he’s also acting out of an unhealthy dose of hubris, rejecting the settlement deal without consulting his client’s next of kin (her sister and brother-in-law, Roxanne Hart and James Handy), who quite reasonably take him to task when they find out.
Indeed, it’s more because this is Paul Newman that we stay on-side long enough to see Frank break ground in recovering his mojo, what there is of it (defendants disappear, his replacement doctor witness isn’t up to scratch, and he’s ill-prepared), and his evisceration of O’Shea’s motives and honour is one of the most gratifying scenes in the picture (“You couldn’t hack it as a lawyer. You were a bag man for the boys downtown and you still are. I know about you”).
Unethical as Frank has been, the picture reserves greater condemnation for Concannon’s unscrupulous behaviour with regard to Rampling’s Laura Fisch. The picture has some interesting and conflicting impulses with regard to its female characters. One the one hand the hero, Frank, is symptomatic of a patriarchal hierarchy that infringes in some way on all the women in the piece; the church, medicine, and the law courts, are presided over by men. Women are put in vegetative states, forced from their jobs, or pressured into effectively prostituting themselves to get ahead. Yet Frank’s not answering his phone at the end, sobered up while Laura turns to the booze, is seen as a heroic moment for him and deserved punishment for her (as is earlier being socked on the jaw by Frank). Perhaps this is a consequence of unconscious intent, as those who are mistreated could be seen as such equally for reasons of class and status as gender; not for nothing does the victim’s brother-in-law affirm the similarities between Frank and his opponents (“You know, you guys are all the same”).
Mamet’s other acclaimed screenplay for hire of the ’80s was The Untouchables, and both were realised with enormous accomplishment by their directors and cast. The Verdict was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture. It probably should have won that one, out of the other contenders. It definitely should have won Best Actor for Newman (the award for The Colour of Money is a classic case of a deserved award for the wrong film). Warden, Mason, O’Shea, Crouse are all outstanding, facilitating Lumet’s sure sense of urban verisimilitude. Since then, the legal drama has unfortunately been glossily Grisham-ed up, but The Verdict is the real deal.