R | 2h 9min | Drama | 17 December 1982 (USA)
When a director slows the action down and focuses on the actor, we see a nervous twitch here, a tremble of the chin there—a multitude of subtle cues that give insights into a character’s emotional state. If done right, these long, unbroken shots can help viewers immerse themselves in the world that the filmmaker is trying to bring to life. This technique is used to near-perfection in the 1982 legal drama “The Verdict,” starring Paul Newman in perhaps his finest performance.
Helmed by Sidney Lumet (“12 Angry Men,” “Serpico,” “Network”), a director who is known for bringing the best out of his actors, the film begins with an intimate look at Newman’s character, Frank Galvin. Frank’s a down-on-his-luck Boston attorney, who has had very few cases in recent years.
He’s playing a game of pinball in a run-down bar, and much like his life, he keeps losing game after game. The large window in the background paints a dreary, gray scene, and that, along with a crooked Christmas ornament dangling nearby, signals that it’s winter. This long, unbroken shot immediately gives you an insight into Frank. Each time he loses a pinball game, he pauses and takes a sip from his semi-flat beer or a drag from a cigarette.
Later, we see Frank at several funeral services. As bereaved attendees shuffle around, Frank hands out his business cards to family members, hoping to drum up some business. These dismal scenes culminate in Frank getting tossed out of a funeral home, after being a little too pushy and insensitive with his card-dispensing.
That evening, Frank holds court at a local bar, telling lewd jokes to a rapt circle of buddies, guffawing at every punchline. He staggers back to his office where—in a drunken rage—he smashes some of his framed law certificates, resulting in a glass shard cutting his brow.
Later, his only friend, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden), shows up and finds him in a near-comatose state. Mickey revives Frank and reveals a surprise: He’s got a case tailor-made for Frank that could not only restore the man’s reputation as a lawyer but also make him rich.
The case involves a couple of well-respected doctors who practice at an esteemed Catholic hospital in the city. The doctors stand accused of malpractice: of improperly administering anesthetic to a young woman during an operation. The woman has not only lost her unborn baby but has also lapsed into a vegetative state.
The case seems open-and-shut, just begging for an out-of-court settlement. As the alcoholic cobwebs begin to clear from Frank’s head, his still-intelligent eyes dart about at the prospect of an easy fortune. But when Frank shows up to take Polaroid snapshots of the victim’s withered body, lying in a hospital bed, he has a cathartic moment. As he stares at her, any sense of greed he had is replaced with something else.
Frank is summoned to the church to meet with Bishop Brophy (Edward Binns), who represents the interests of the diocese. In the opulent church office, the bishop offers Frank a generous settlement that will set him up for life.
However, Frank has been transformed: He’s now seeking justice for the victim, at all costs. He turns down the offer, saying that if he accepts the money, he’d “just be a rich … ambulance chaser.” In other words, accepting the settlement would forever cost him his integrity and perhaps his soul.
For Frank, the case represents not only justice for the victim but also a validation of his skill and talent as an attorney. He’d no longer be viewed as a has-been if he fights it out.
As the legal storm looms on the horizon, Frank realizes that the odds are stacked against him. The church has hired a top-flight law firm, which is headed by ruthless legal guru Ed Concannon (James Mason).
During this time, Frank falls for Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling), and the two begin an intense relationship. Although Laura seems supportive and nurturing, we wonder if she truly has Frank’s interest at heart.
And as Frank begins to experience setback after setback, we wonder: Does he really have what it takes to go up against such a high-powered legal team, especially when the presiding judge dislikes him?
Simply put, “The Verdict” is a riveting legal drama with not only a compelling story but also stellar acting and direction. The film’s slow-building tension gradually ratchets up every time Frank is met with a new challenge (or falters in the face of one) and our sympathy for him deepens. The film’s an authentic-feeling character study about a man whose passion for truth and justice outweighs his capabilities … or does it? Find out for yourself in this outstanding cinematic tour de force.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason
Running Time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 17, 1982 (USA)
Rated: 5 stars out of 5