Friday, April 29, 2016

The Verdict: A Review (Review #801)


I know of The Verdict through its reputation.  The Verdict is suppose to have one of Paul Newman's greatest performances, so amazing that some people think (erroneously) that he won his only competitive Oscar for it.  He didn't: he won if for The Color of Money, and while he was nominated for The Verdict, he lost to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi.  Even Kingsley thought Newman was going to win, recalling years later that he told his then-wife before the winner was announced, "Ready to applaud Paul Newman?"

How could anyone beat The Mahatma?

Now that I have seen The Verdict, one thing is clear: Paul Newman Was Robbed. 

The Verdict has to be among Newman's greatest performance, the evolution of his character a subtle one, and one that surprises you with this journey into redemption.

Frank Galvin (Newman), once a brilliant lawyer, is now on the skids.  Alcoholic, lonely, and with virtually no future, he attempts to find clients by crashing funerals, pretending to be one of the mourners, and slipping his card to the widow or bereaved family.  His mentor and friend Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) is disgusted by Galvin's self-destruction, but still cares enough to send him a sure-fire winner.  It's a medical malpractice suit for a woman left in a vegetative state thanks to a disastrous operation room accident.  She had been given anesthesia that caused her to choke on her own vomit while delivering her child, something that should not have happened...if she had not eaten 9 hours earlier.

If she had eaten 1 hour prior to surgery, however...

The Catholic-run hospital and the two doctors are eager to settle out-of-court, the Archdiocese of Boston in particular not wanting any scandal.  Galvin is thrilled about the potential for a large settlement, from which he will take the customary third and which could put him if not back on top at least save him financially.  To make for a better case, he goes to see the victim again at the hospital and takes Polaroid shots.

It's here, looking at her state, that the glee slips from Galvin's eyes, and he sees the victim for what she is, and sees himself for where he's at.  Against all logic, when he meets with the Archbishop, he calmly, but perhaps sadly, tells him he will reject the offer and take it to trial.

This means going up against a host of opposition, and not just from the Church.  It means opposing the will of the victim's family, against the advise of Mickey, and that's just for starters.  It means going up against the equally brilliant legal mind of Ed Concannon (James Mason), the Church/hospital/doctors lawyer.  Concannon doesn't see the broken down Galvin as a threat, but he also isn't automatically dismissive either.  Concannon does have an ally in Judge Hoyt (Milo O'Shea), with whom he is quite chummy.

In all this comes Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling), a beautiful woman whom Frank has managed to pick up and with whom he's stared a relationship. 

Things continue to go against Frank.  His star witness who can vouch for the doctors' ineptness has vanished out of the country, and the hastily-called substitute ends up making things slightly worse.  The fact that the substitute witness is black, old, and not from Boston, along with the virtually open way the judge practically argues the case for the defense all make things much harder for Frank.

Despite this, despite all the opposition, Frank Galvin will not give up, give out, or give in.  Galvin will keep fighting, and eventually, through perhaps questionable means, finds the only person in the operating room who is not testifying for the defense, a former nurse who admitted the victim and took down her information.  Frank, at wits end, all but pleads for her to come after travelling to New York to find her.

Mickey goes to New York too, to give Frank bad news regarding Laura.  He's made a discovery regarding her that is shocking.  Still, despite this, he slowly pulls himself away from booze and self-pity to bring Nurse Costello back, who gives damning testimony.  Concannon manages to fight his way back to where he gets Hoyt to order the jury to disregard the evidence.  Galvin is lost.

With nothing to lose, he addresses the jury at Closing Arguments, telling them they are the law and to do good, to do justice.  When the jury delivers its verdict, it is a shocking one, and in there lies Galvin's redemption and we end with him, soberly drinking coffee, ignoring the calls of a drunk Laura.

The brilliance of Paul Newman's performance comes from how Newman brought the evolution of Galvin into a slow but thoroughly believable and both heartbreaking and uplifting way.   Of particular note is when Galvin goes back to the hospital to see the victim.  He'd done it before, and was clinical towards her, as if studying her with no sense or interest in who she was.  We'd also seen him jump for joy at the thought of the settlement, and when he goes in to photograph her, there seems to be an almost ghoulish sense of glee about it.  Slowly, very slowly, we see the realization come to Frank, the disillusionment sweep over him.

It's a very quiet turn, done mostly with Newman's eyes, but he does demonstrate both the shock of her condition and realization of his with his body, the confident manner given over to a cross of regret and recrimination.  It's as if he is in shock, at himself, at what he is doing, at what he has become, and in what he is seeing.  This particular moment, so quiet yet so powerful, gets to you, and we see just how dynamic Newman's performance is.

That is how he is throughout The Verdict, and the script by legendary writer David Mamet (adapting Barry Reed's novel) is not afraid to make our hero an extremely flawed one.  We open with Galvin in shadow, playing pinball and swilling booze, a literal shadow of his former self.  He goes to funerals to get clients and is willing to go along to get along.  The Verdict, however, shows when Galvin begins to break free of his own perceptions, holding on to his old ideas of justice and fierce determination even when everything seems to go against him.

Sidney Lumet not only gets the already brilliant Newman to give perhaps one of his finest performances, but he does this with the whole cast.  James Mason, as the wily lawyer, exudes a cool rational manner to his Concannon, particularly when he coaches one of the doctors in his testimony.  Concannon is able to argue both sides and in his courtly manner shows his power as an attorney.  Perhaps Mason's best moment is when he cross-examines Nurse Costello, who has given the evidence that clearly showed his clients were indeed negligent. 

It looks like Concannon and the defense will about to collapse, especially when Costello is able to reproduce a copy of the disputed report that shows she wrote a ONE rather than the NINE she was ordered to make it to protect the doctors.  Mason acts the desperate disbelief beautifully, but more fascinatingly he shows Concannon furiously, but so calmly, fighting back, determined to turn things around one last time.  It is a brilliant performance.

Everyone: Warden as the loyal friend, Rampling as the loving femme fatale, O'Shea as the politically-connected biased judge (his determination to turn Galvin's witness against him to where HE is the de facto defense attorney), Joe Seneca as the flawed star witness for the prosecution, all gave simply brilliant performances.  There isn't a bad performance in The Verdict, a veritable acting showcase.

Lumet doesn't throw much in terms of theatrics: no overblown score (though Johnny Mandel's music is still strong), no great dramatic moments, just a solid script and great actors showing what they can do with a strong director guiding them.  Most other directors would have given us a 'big moment' when Mickey reveals the truth to Galvin, but Lumet deliberately kept us at a distance, letting us imagine what was said.  We saw what must have been a particularly devastating turn for Galvin, but the fact that Lumet and Mamet kept us at bay, with only street sounds to hear, was a brilliant decision.

Oh, perhaps the film dragged a bit and we didn't get Concannon's own summing up, but I am not quibbling over little things.  The Verdict is a master class of actors at the top of their game, a strong, twisty script, and some of the sharpest directing around.  I offer that the Academy's own verdict was wrong this year: Paul Newman deserved the Oscar for The Verdict


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