Skip to main content

Your honor, with all due respect: if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it.

The Verdict
(1982)

(SPOILERS) Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.


And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meeting Sydney Pollack on the sly and axed him, bringing in Lumet, who ceded to Mamet’s version, which also met with Newman’s approval.


Lumet was concerned the rewrites were moving away from Mamet’s grit (in an adaptation of Barry Reed’s novel). Of which, despite the lack of the writer’s familiar staccato rhythms, you can tell his involvement just from the frequency with which Jack Warden’s Mickey says “fuck”. True, the occasional narrative device perhaps isn’t the deftest (Charlotte Rampling’s love interest, revealed as a tool of the opposition to keep tabs on Frank’s progress, is thematically coherent, but still feels very much a “device” of Hollywood narrative concoction). Yet Mamet resists the urge to grandstand with speeches (we are told he only actually put the verdict in on the insistence of Lumet; satisfying as it is, you can see how that version would be more fitting/appropriate), and, when he reveals his workings, the mechanics elicit admiration rather than groans.


For example, when presented with a surprise witness (Mamet’s then wife Lindsay Crouse, Mamet pulling the last minute testimony card to spellbinding effect), defence attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason) makes the same novice mistake Frank did earlier. He asks a question in court to which he doesn’t know the answer. In this case, it would straightforwardly have cost Concannon the trial, if not for the partiality of Milo O’Shea’s odious presiding judge. He does still lose, but that’s down to Frank’s final appeal to the jury, swaying them even though the crucial testimony has been disregarded. Apparently Frank’s tack, appealing to the jury as “the law”, known as jury nullification, is frowned upon, but no one watching would begrudge him, given the way the odds have been continually and resoundingly stacked against him.


In part this makes The Verdict a classic “David and Goliath” tale, an irresistible layer on top of courtroom theatrics being generally irresistible anyway. Frank’s client was left in a vegetative state, following the administering of the wrong anaesthetic during childbirth. The hospital happens to belong the Archdiocese of Boston, so naturally has the resources to secure the services of the “Prince of Darkness” (Concannon; Mamet’s obviously enjoying himself with the duality of their representative’s nickname). By the ‘90s we’d have legal dramas (Murder One springs to mind) in which the enormous team of supporting lawyers is on the hero’s side; here, it’s an indication of all that is corrupt and inimical to fair play.


That said, though, Frank’s motives are hardly spotless. He may be fighting for a higher ideal, exposing the dodgy doctors (and by implication the dodgy Boston Roman Catholic establishment; see also the recent Spotlight), but he’s also acting out of an unhealthy dose of hubris, rejecting the settlement deal without consulting his client’s next of kin (her sister and brother-in-law, Roxanne Hart and James Handy), who quite reasonably take him to task when they find out.


Indeed, it’s more because this is Paul Newman that we stay on-side long enough to see Frank break ground in recovering his mojo, what there is of it (defendants disappear, his replacement doctor witness isn’t up to scratch, and he’s ill-prepared), and his evisceration of O’Shea’s motives and honour is one of the most gratifying scenes in the picture (“You couldn’t hack it as a lawyer. You were a bag man for the boys downtown and you still are. I know about you”).


Unethical as Frank has been, the picture reserves greater condemnation for Concannon’s unscrupulous behaviour with regard to Rampling’s Laura Fisch. The picture has some interesting and conflicting impulses with regard to its female characters. One the one hand the hero, Frank, is symptomatic of a patriarchal hierarchy that infringes in some way on all the women in the piece; the church, medicine, and the law courts, are presided over by men. Women are put in vegetative states, forced from their jobs, or pressured into effectively prostituting themselves to get ahead. Yet Frank’s not answering his phone at the end, sobered up while Laura turns to the booze, is seen as a heroic moment for him and deserved punishment for her (as is earlier being socked on the jaw by Frank). Perhaps this is a consequence of unconscious content, as those who are mistreated could be seen as such equally for reasons of class and status as gender; not for nothing does the victim’s brother-in-law affirm the similarities between Frank and his opponents (“You know, you guys are all the same”).


Mamet’s other acclaimed screenplay for hire of the ‘80s was The Untouchables, and both were realised with enormous accomplishment by their directors and cast. The Verdict was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture. It probably should have won that one, out of the other contenders. It definitely should have won Best Actor for Newman (the award for The Color of Money is a classic case of a deserved award for the wrong film). Warden, Mason, O’Shea, Crouse are all outstanding, facilitating Lumet’s sure sense of urban verisimilitude. Since then, the legal drama has unfortunately been glossily Grisham-ed up, but The Verdict is the real deal.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

Look out the window. Eden’s not burning, it’s burnt.

Reign of Fire (2002) (SPOILERS) There was good reason to believe Rob Bowman would make a successful transition from top-notch TV director to top-notch film one. He had, after all, attracted attention and plaudits for Star Trek: The Next Generation and become such an integral part of The X-File s that he was trusted with the 1998 leap to the big screen. That movie wasn’t the hit it might have been – I suspect because, such was Chris Carter’s inability to hone a coherent arc, it continued to hedge its bets – but Bowman showed he had the goods. And then came Reign of Fire . And then Elektra . And that was it. Reign of Fire is entirely competently directed, but that doesn’t prevent it from being entirely lousy.