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Verdict, The (1982)
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by MP Bartley

"Guilty...of being really, really good."
4 stars

God, I miss Sidney Lumet. And Paul Newman. And James Mason.

Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is an alcoholic, broken-down lawyer on a serious losing streak of cases and down to his last few cents when he's given an open goal of a case. A young woman admitted to a local hospital run by the Catholic diocese was administered the wrong amount of anaesthesia, the result of which has put her into a permanent vegetative state. The family of the woman are suing and the church, eager to avoid the controversy, are willing to settle out of court for quite a considerable sum. Frank, however, in a fit of both desperation and arrogance, dismisses the offer out of hand. He wants to take it to trial, he wants to win and he wants more than the church is offering as well as a high-profile victory to kickstart his career over again.

The problem that most courtroom dramas have is that they tend to fall into cliche quite easily, because there's only one way that the narrative can really go. The Verdict, however, mostly skirts around this problem with Lumet, and David Mamet's script, spending most of the time outside of the courtroom. Instead, the film concerns itself with Frank painstakingly trying to piece together a fragmented case where most of the witnesses are either afraid to speak out or mysteriously out of reach when Frank needs them most, leading him to ever desperate measures to fight his corner against a stack of evidence and an increasingly-antagonistic judge (Miles O'Shea). It's interesting that the only time the film really descends into a cliche towards the end is a moment that is neatly turned right on its head and turns near certain victory into near certain defeat for one side.

Of course, it helps that it's Sidney Lumet at the helm here - not so much because he started his career in the courtroom with 12 Angry Men, but more because there are few directors that can capture the rhythm and cadence of dialogue such as him. He has the uncanny knack of making simple conversation an enthralling thing to both look at and listen to, and it's this approach that gives The Verdict such vim and vigour. Actors playing lawyers tend to pontificate and strut, but Lumet cuts right through that. There is precious little grandstanding here, just the cut and thrust of piercing legal jargon to spin various witnesses and testimony in just the way that the prosecution or defence want them. Few legal thrillers actually thrill in the way that The Verdict intelligently does - setting up a relatively small stake, but mining every inch of drama out of it, by the fact that everyone involved buys into the seriousness of the case.

It's often said that when Paul Newman won his Oscar the previous year for The Color Of Money it was a "whoops, sorry we've overlooked you in the past" award, rather than one on genuine merit. I'd probably go along with that, if only because if they'd kept their powder dry for a year, then they could have rewarded him for one of his most dynamic and stellar performances. There's no real reason we should overly like Frank - we first see him boozing, shuffling into wakes to hand out business cards like an especially reprehensible ambulance chaser - and Newman discards every inch of star quality that he has to make Frank a rather pathetic man. Taking joy out of beating the slot machine in his local bar is indicative of how far Frank has fallen from a once-promising career and neatly adds to all the odds stacking up against him. It's not so much the fact that Frank has to beat all the evidence to win the case, he's got to beat himself to do it. It sounds trite, but credit the intelligent direction and script for not making that point overly cumbersome. Even when he gets to seduce a younger woman than he, Laura (Charlotte Rampling) he's seen as needy, pathetic and a little bit awkward (and awkward best sums up her role in the film - it's the only one that seems bolted on for an obvious dramatic necessity, rather than an organic development). It's one of the bravest, most detailed and just damn brilliant performances that Newman ever delivered - a man so full of self-doubt, you can't help but doubt along with him.

Of course, there's always two sides to every case, and in the other corner is James Mason as the slick, smug and snidely superior Colcannon, leading the defence. I can't think of many actors who have a voice as purely pleasurable to listen to as Mason's is. Every nuance of a word, every cadence is purred out with oily insincerity and casual menace, as he destroys nearly every witness for the prosecution. He and Newman spar wonderfully together - one an urbane tea drinker, the other a quivery boozer - each giving the other ample room to make their mark - Newman in a chambers scene where he's about to blow his top, and in a wonderfully inverted summation scene, where instead of coming across as full of righteous fury and justice, Frank is instead meek and and downbeat. Lumet refuses to give him any hero shots, no close-ups, just a detached view of how the entire courtroom has apparently ganged up on him. Mason, meanwhile, gets an absolutely spectacular moment all of his own - thrown a last-minute curveball that sends him spinning, you can see the wheels turning furiously behind his eyes and his brain working overtime as he tries to work out how to turn the case back his way, all the while he's mid-question and has to do it on the spot. It's the kind of moment, you'll gladly pause the film for and rewind just to watch it over again.

In the last year or so we've lost both Lumet and Newman - Mason long before that. The Verdict is powerful, gripping, old-fashioned (in the best possible way) stirring and thought-provoking entertainment. Whatever your thoughts on the actual verdict delivered (and I'm still not sure how well it sits with me), this film resonates as evidence of what a couple of cinematic legends we've been unfortunate enough to lose lately.

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originally posted: 06/07/11 04:56:01
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User Comments

11/01/09 Monday Morning One of the best. Solidly in my top 20. 5 stars
6/27/08 Kevin Rockmore Paul Newman at his prime. 5 stars
4/05/08 Pamela White newman is spectacular 5 stars
3/23/08 Bernard Riveting courtroom drama. 5 stars
3/22/08 Philip A very fabulous film. Please see it, if you haven't. 5 stars
12/02/05 Terri Enjoyed it very much/Good Movie 4 stars
10/11/05 Agent Sands The best part is Newman talking to the jury at the end. 4 stars
6/09/05 TheViper Sure there are some flaws, hey this is hollywood. Fabulous movie. 5 stars
3/12/05 heo sublime 5 stars
3/24/03 Jack Sommersby Flawed and riddled with logic loopholes, it's still killer entertainment. Newman is aces. 4 stars
2/03/03 R.W. Welch Much above average legal drama. Tatum is right:Newman was robbed. 4 stars
12/15/02 Charles Tatum This should have nabbed Newman the Oscar 5 stars
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  08-Dec-1982 (R)
  DVD: 12-Jun-2007



Directed by
  Sidney Lumet

Written by
  David Mamet

  Paul Newman
  Jack Warden
  Charlotte Rampling
  James Mason
  Milo O'Shea
  Lindsay Crouse

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