Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Verdict
(A version of this post first appeared on the Bryn Mawr Film Institute Blog)

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I say that the verdict is in on this movie -- it’s a masterpiece. We lost one of our most gifted and prolific directors not too long ago. Sidney Lumet made such great films as: Long Day's Journey into Night; Fail-Safe; The Pawnbroker; and Network.  However, a number of his films deal with crime and the legal system.  These include: 12 Angry Men; Serpico; Murder on the Orient Express; Dog Day Afternoon; and Prince of the City.

My favorite movie of his in this area is The Verdict. You cannot find another title of a movie which has so much to do with what the film is about. The word "verdict" is derived from the Latin and means "to speak the truth." This movie shows how lies can have tragic consequences, and how outward appearances are not good indicators as to who is the most reliable source of truth. It is here where the marriage of Lumet with writer David Mamet is a match made in screenwriting heaven. Mamet, too, deals with the line between justice and injustice, society's rules and the breaking of those rules, in such films as House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross, and The Edge.

The Verdict, a 1982 film, showcases Paul Newman as Frank Galvin, in maybe his best performance, as a promising lawyer who has fallen from legal and ethical grace in the Catholic world of Boston's jurisprudence. We first see him as an alcoholic who tries to fund his visits at his favorite bar by browsing the obituaries and soliciting representation from grieving families at funerals, pretending to be a friend of the deceased. He is so ashamed and angry at what he has become that while intoxicated he slams his framed law diploma against his desk, and a glass fragment hits him near his eye. This action symbolizes how the legal institution has become subverted in his world, and how this corruption has undermined Frank's moral vision. 

His concerned, although foul mouthed and sometimes racial slurring mentor Mick, played by Jack Warden, throws a potentially lucrative malpractice case Frank's way. At first, Frank is just out for the money, looking for a quick settlement. He reassures the family of the comatose victim while not revealing his dilapidated office (an expressionistic touch which mirrors his life) under the pretense that it is filled with paper for another case (a lie). He hangs a sheet of paper on his door that says he is meeting with the judge (untrue).

The way setting is presented in this film is important to depict who has power and who are the downtrodden. In his book, Making Movies, Lumet says "In The Verdict we used a very narrow color selection and older architecture. No modern buildings were seen in the movie." St. Catherine's (the Catholic hospital), the courtroom, the office of James Mason's defending lawyer Concannon (whose name implies he is a big shot), Frank's sleazy apartment, even the bar Frank frequents, are old fashioned in style, but are differentiated as to level of refinement by those who populate them. You can feel the heft of the dark hardwood weighing everything down, emphasizing how difficult it is to alter society's entrenched power structure. Lumet emphasizes the disparity as to the opposing sides as he cuts between the old legal library where Frank and Mick prepare for the case alone, and the army of litigators in the opulent conference room presided over by Concannon.

Editing is essential in showing Frank gravitating back to his ethical base (and living up to his name which means "free from guile"). As Lumet says in his book, "In The Verdict, the most important transition in the movie was illuminated by the close-ups of Paul Newman examining a Polaroid photograph. He had taken the picture of the victim, and he watched it develop. As the photograph took on life, he did too. I could feel the present breaking through for a man who, up until then, had been trapped in the detritus of his past life. It was the intercutting between the developing Polaroid and the close-ups of Newman that made the transition palpable." When Frank meets the Bishop (played by Edward Binns) he cannot accept the low offer of $210,000 because "no one will know the truth" that those who should have looked after his client failed her. If he takes the hush money, he will be "lost."

Past lies derailed Frank before and hinder his forward movement in the present. Mick tells Frank's new girlfriend, Laura, played by Charlotte Rampling, that Frank was forced to lie and take the fall for his law firm's jury tampering after he threatened to expose his partners. He lost his job and his wife. In the current case, he has a doctor willing to testify against a peer, but that physician is forced out of the country by the powers-that-be, so he cannot tell the truth. Even Frank is not honest with the relatives of the patient about no longer wanting to settle out of court. Cocannon is always one step ahead of Frank and we find out why:  Mick finds Concannon's check made out to Laura, who is a spy, feeding information to Concannon. How Ironic, since on their second meeting Frank tells Laura, "Tell me the truth. You can't lie to me." But, she has fallen for Frank, and does not tell Concannon about the admitting nurse (played by Lindsay Crouse), who Frank convinces to testify. The esteemed doctor who is the defendant had not read that the patient had a full meal one hour prior to the delivery of her baby. The close time of the meal to the delivery caused her to aspirate vomit into her mask, causing her to lose oxygen, creating the vegetative state. The doctor then coerced the nurse to lie about the time of the meal, changing the "1" to a "9." The lies of the powerful spread like a virus to infect those working for them.

It is also ironic to see Concannon, who has been duplicitous with Laura, lecture Crouse's character about perjury. Even though the photocopy of the original admitting form is tossed out, the testimony is heard by the jury. The Bishop asks an underling, after the nurse's testimony, that despite Concannon's legal prowess, did he believe her? The other's silence shows that the jury saw the truth. The irony that the supposedly trustworthy Catholic Church is behind such a distasteful cover-up is evident here. Earlier in the film, Frank tells Laura, "The jury wants to believe. I mean they want to believe." In his summation, Frank says that we hear so many lies that we doubt our institutions. We feel powerless, and we become victims. But, he tells the jury that today they are the law, and he believes that there is justice in our hearts. Of course, he wins big, but the huge settlement is not as important as is the moral victory.

The film ends enigmatically with the guilt-ridden Rampling repeatedly calling Newman.  He appears that he may answer the phone (while now only drinking coffee), but just can't do it. Truth may bring redemption, but it does not erase the betrayal of lies.

Newman lost the Oscar to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi. Do you think that the right choice was made? What are your favorite Paul Newman roles?

Next week’s film is The Outlaw Josey Wales.

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