In honor of the late great Sidney Lumet, I watched “The Verdict” one of the four films for which he was nominated for Best Director. It’s a courtroom drama starring Paul Newman and written by David Mamet, both of whom were nominated for Oscars as well in 1982.
What sets it apart instantly is how we follow Newman as Frank Galvin, a struggling drunk of an attorney with a reputation for being an ambulance chaser after a divorce, a disbarment hearing and the loss of four cases in the last three years of his career. The movie starts on a note that other films might climax on, showing him trashing his office before his first case in months shows up at his doorstep. It’s a simple malpractice case intended to be settled out of court. He would make a clean $70,000 and the plaintiffs would go away happy too, and although he starts out as a lying dirt bag, putting on performances to explain to his client why he was late and making up pseudonyms and stories to get into funerals and hospitals, he instantly gains a change of heart when he sees his client, a girl in a coma whose life has been taken away by negligent doctors.
As a craggy old man, it’s a bit of a reversal of the norms. Usually the down in the dumps guy is always fighting for social justice and has his morals compromised or vice versa. It was refreshing to see Newman in a weak, old man role rather than his young, good looking self. He was in his early 50s at the time, but he plays a character looking to be in his 60s at least. It’s a stark contrast to even his role reprisal in “The Color of Money,” where his character is old but his spirit is not.
The performances are all great and the dialogue is well written, but I sometimes take exception to courtroom dramas that have flaws in their case proceedings. That’s the point of “The Verdict,” I know, that the system is broken and the poor are powerless, but this movie had a judge out to get Galvin and actually opening his mouth to ask questions to the witness, and later a key testimony is stricken from the record on a technicality. There’s also a big twist that comes later, but it and the character’s other purpose both seemed tacked on.
I did enjoy it, if specifically for Newman’s work and Lumet’s ability to keep the camera hidden and let the characters speak for themselves. But the AFI lists it as the 4th best courtroom drama of all time, and that may be pushing it.