“If I take the money I’m lost. I’ll just be a rich ambulance chaser.” – Frank Galvin
Read it here, this is the all-time best courtroom drama ever made. The Verdict (1982) is from the autumn part of Paul Newman’s career after he had distinguished himself as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. He was allowed, and game at this point in his career, to play damaged characters. The film, by director Sidney Lumet (“Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon”), transcends the genre not because it has concocted the mother of all court cases, but because it depicts how the real truth can be neutered by tampered evidence and the human individual discounted within the mechanics of a courtroom.
This is Newman’s finest hour, as a Boston boozehound lawyer Frank Galvin (so croaky he has to grind out his speech) whose track record is so haphazard that he has lost familiarity within a courtroom. An open-and-shut malpractice suit falls into Galvin’s lap, but instead of collecting easy money from a settlement, he wants to fight to win it all. He’s out to prove that negligent doctors at a Catholic hospital carelessly turned a young woman into a vegetable. Galvin more than just wants to win a settlement, he wants to win within a courtroom so that he can test his lawyer skills once again. The clients he represents are furious when they learn he turned down an offer without consulting them.
The opposing defense is headed by snooty lawyer Ed Concannon (James Mason, superb) who is chummy with the judge (Milo O’Shea). More than them, Galvin is up against an over-powerful establishment, the Catholic Church diocese. Once the trial is underway it goes sour in a myriad of ways, one of them is how Galvin asks impertinent questions that drum up favor to the opposing team.
In the midst of this, Newman in one scene punches the lights out on a woman. We who are gentlemen are taught in youth never to strike a woman. The striking of this woman is justified, just see for yourself and you will understand. It could have been the first scene of the film, and everything else could have been flashback, and it would have been an interesting drama deconstructing this event. But oh my God is this shocking moment earned, because she was ever so treacherous with other peoples’ lives at stake. Also powerful is Newman’s final summation speech to the jury and you will see just about the best acting you will ever come across. Only Newman’s Galvin – arrived at the brink of ruin, at the limits of shame, pleading for mercy – could have delivered a speech so soulful, and regardless of any legal outcome, he has at the least, redeemed himself.
Few films have so rigorously downplayed their color palette for stark dramatic effect. This is a triumph for Lumet and Newman in bringing this anguished character study to authentic life, both assisted by a brilliant David Mamet screenplay.
129 Minutes. Rated R.
COURTROOM DRAMA / ADULTS / LATE NIGHT FOOD FOR THOUGHT