Monday, September 12, 2011

The Verdict

 I watched and reviewed two of Clint Eastwood's 1980's films in the last week or so. In both reviews I felt that the 80's were a somewhat barren era cinema wise. I  mean it had some great films but nothing compared to the 1970's The Godfather, The French Connection, Apocalypse Now, Dog Day Afternoon, or The Sting as examples. The 80's had the likes of Gandhi, On Golden Pond, A Passage to India, A Room With a View, Chariots of Fire, etc, but really it was a decade that just didn't seem to produce the masterpieces of old.

 But even though truly great films of the 80's were somewhat barren in numbers, it still did produce some exceptionally good ones. Without question 1982's The Verdict must rate as one of the best. Of course it starred the incomparable Paul Newman in one of his very best performances....ever. But like all great films The Verdict is not all about the performances. This film worked because it had a superb script, and was directed by one of the great directors in Sidney Lumet.

 Put the three together and it is no surprise that The Verdict is considered on the decade's finest films. It is based on the 1980 novel of the same name by Barry Reed. It was adapted to film by David Mamet. The script Mamet initially wrote was discarded and re-written by other writers. But when they didn't work Mamet's script was dug out and used for the film. But it had to have an ending added as the novel didn't go as far as having a verdict in it. I think it an excellent script and it was nominated for an Oscar ( Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium ).

 Robert Redford thought it excellent and considered taking the role. But he declined it as he was uncomfortable with the scene where Frank hits Laura. Both Frank Sinatra and Dustin Hoffman were briefly considered for the role. Even Cary Grant liked it, aged 78, but said 'If only I wasn't Cary Grant...'!! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but really, was there anyone else for the role but Paul Newman? In 1982 he was 57 and just perfect for the down-on-his-luck, alcoholic lawyer, Frank Galvin.

 The plot revolves around a medical malpractice suit involving two highly respected doctors. They left a woman in a permanent vegetative state after anesthesia issues. The suit is in the hands of Frank Galvin who has given it little attention. After prodding from a friend he looks into the case. It promises him a good financial return if he settles out of court. But he realises that it isn't the right thing to do and decides to take it to trial. Against all the odds this 'ambulance chaser' wins.

 It is interesting because this is touted as a court room film. And yet whilst it is court/law based, it is more a story of redemption. Galvin became alcoholic after being unceremoniously accused of jury tampering as a young lawyer. It ruined his promising career, and he has harbored the bitterness for years. When he bravely decides to take the case to trail, instead of taking the offered $200,000 out of court settlement, he faces the opposition of the family involved. But worse still, from a high powered shark of a lawyer, and an unsympathetic judge.

James Mason plays Ed Concannon, 'the prince of fucking darkness', who uses influence and smear campaigns to win cases. There is nothing illegal in what he does but there is an immorality about him and his tactics. Mason's is one of the three stand out performances in the film, and he was rightly  nominated for an Oscar for, Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Mason's character is well backed up by Milo O'Shea as Judge Hoyle. He puts every obstacle in Galvin's way so that he can lose the trial. The two together represent a pair who hide behind the 'law', while manipulating it to their own advantage.

 Jack Warden as Mickey Morrisey is the other stand out as Galvin's friend and former partner. He has stood by Frank for years, and had thrown the case his way for the substantial financial gain Galvin would get from it. He reluctantly agrees to help Galvin take the case to trial. It is his character who finds Galvin's recent girlfriend is selling off his legal strategy to Concannon. We see the result in the court scenes as Galvin's case is shredded with ease.

 I found this whole film absolutely gripping. From the moment it started to the end the world around me ceased to exist. It is very rarely that a film so engrosses me. I laughed to myself as I pushed eject, because I literally felt as if I had just woken from a dream! The script and premise is just so strong that it instantly engages you. But what tops it all off are the performances. This is a gritty, no nonsense film, and Lumet films it as such. Notice that right throughout there are no bright colours in sight. If anything everything has a brown hue to it ( I believe this was intentional ). The whole idea is to give the feel of the odds Galvin faces, and an atmosphere of oppression. And it works, because things go so badly in court, it looks as if Galvin will actually lose.

 But then ( this being a court room plot ), the climatic scene arrives. After Galvin punches Laura he finds the nurse who was hushed up after the death of the patient. She provides a shattering testimony saying she was forced to change her chart notes to hide the doctor's errors. But then the viewer is stunned senseless. Concannon refers to another case which the Judge happily accepts a ruling on, dis-barring her evidence. Galvin looks sunk. But for me this scene provides one of the finest moments of the film.

 After Concannon has had the nurse's evidence dis-barred he returns to his seat. The doctor in question pats him on the arm,  knowing he will now be found not guilty of negligence. Concannon pulls his arm away in disgust. He realises his client is guilty as sin and will get away with his negligence. It is a sobering moment in the film for me. Concannon is faced with his immoral methods and the consequences. The viewer just knows he is suddenly doing some soul searching. So whilst the film is about Newman's Frank Galvin, it is also about the opposite side of the coin, as portrayed by Mason.

 With Concannon's actual use of the law, and its technicalities, Judge Hoyle quite gleefully allows the nurse's testimony to be dis-credited. The novel actually ends about here, but fortunately the film doesn't and we get 'the Verdict'. It is in favour of Galvin. For me the scene where Newman sums up his case is superb. Unlike many courtroom dramas it isn't too long, and we don't get Concannon's. The scene starts with Newman lost deep in thought, oblivious to the Judge calling him to start. He stands, screwing up his summation notes. It is a brilliant piece of acting/cinema. By doing so Newman shows us his realisation that he has lost.

 But then incredibly the jury returns a guilty verdict which infuriates the judge. He is even more livid when the head juror asks if they are able to stipulate the amount of the pay out. This scene is again,  brilliant. The morality that was lacking, in both the judge and Concannon, is thrown back in their faces. The true law and justice Frank Galvin fought for prevails. The film ends with another brilliant scene where Laura tries to ring Frank. He lets the phone ring as he quite clearly is contemplating his future. The film fades to black with no further dialogue. This final scene is an example of what makes this film so great. All these scene are so quietly ambiguous in what the are saying, without anything actually being said.
 The Verdict is a great film. From Script to acting it is as perfect as a film can get. It was nominated for 5 Oscars, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay. It won none!! Unfortunately for it, 1982 was the year of Gandhi, which swept the Oscars. But I have no problem with that, because it is a good example of two very few films, going head to head. Unfortunately there has to be winners and losers. I have the problem when an obviously fine film or performance is clearly overlooked or snubbed.

 There is much speculation that Paul Newman won his only Oscar for 1986's, The Colour of Money, as a consolation for missing out on, The Verdict. I feel this is probably true because he is far superior in, The Verdict than in, The Colour of Money. Just think though that if he didn't win for, The Colour of Money then he would have never been awarded an Oscar! This is a sobering fact. This is one of the truly great actors and he was disgracefully overlooked Oscars several times. But whilst I'm pleased he did get one, it was not for the right performance.

  If you have never seen The Verdict I recommend you do. As a stand alone Paul Newman performance it rates as one of his absolute best. No question. As a stand alone film it must be regarded as one the decades best. Even though it is regarded as a courtroom drama it is more than that. Sure is legal based but it is more about morality, doing the right thing at the right time, and redemption. Galvin regains his career and self respect by doing so. In the process it highlights the trappings of power, with Concannon and the Judge manipulating the law for their own end.

  Not a feel good film but one that has a sobering message. With a fine script, and superb acting, this is an unmissable film. 8.5/10 from me.

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  1. Courtroom dramas are usually my least favourite genre (mainly because of how static they are by their very definition) - so it says something about Sidney Lumet's talent that both this and '12 Angry Men' are films I can watch time and again and still be gripped by them.

    Terrific review, Brent.

  2. Thanks Neil..yeah I must admit I don't go out of my way to watch this type of genre. I only watched this for Paul Newman. So it was an added bonus that the whole film is so damn good. are right. I think it one of the better courtroom dramas I've watched.

  3. One of the few courtroom films I enjoy, it really holds up well. Nice write up Brent!

  4. It's one of the few courtroom dramas that I have watched. The Paul Newman factor was the drawcard, but the whole film is superb.

  5. Great write-up of an excellent film! Will have to watch this again.

  6. Thanks Ty..yeah it is a great film no question. I watched it twice before I had to return the DVD!!

  7. What'd you think of Julie Bovasso as nurse Maureen Rooney? It's riveting watching her and Newman clash at her home. There's such great support work here with Milo O'Shea and James Mason. The Verdict is a very, very good film.