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

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016) (SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

What do you want me to do? Call America and tell them I changed my mind?

  Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) (SPOILERS) The demolition – at very least as a ratings/box office powerhouse – of the superhero genre now appears to be taking effect. If so, Martin Scorsese will at least be pleased. The studios that count – Disney and Warner Bros – are all aboard the woke train, such that past yardsticks like focus groups are spurned in favour of the forward momentum of agendas from above (so falling in step with the broader media initiative). The most obvious, some might say banal, evidence of this is the repurposing of established characters in race or gender terms.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

I don't think this is the lightning you're looking for.

Meet Joe Black (1998) (SPOILERS) A much-maligned Brad Pitt fest, commonly accused of being interminable, ponderous, self-important and ridiculous. All of those charges may be valid, to a greater or lesser extent, but Meet Joe Black also manages to attain a certain splendour, in spite of its more wayward impulses. While it’s suggestive of a filmmaker – Martin Brest – believing his own hype after the awards success of (the middling) Scent of a Woman , this is a case where all that sumptuous better-half styling and fantasy lifestyle does succeed in achieving a degree of resonance. An undeniably indulgent movie, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you got yourself killed.

Bloodshot (2020) (SPOILERS) If the trailer for Bloodshot gave the impression it had some meagre potential, that’s probably because it revealed the entire plot of a movie clearly intended to unveil itself in measured and judicious fashion. It isn’t far from the halfway mark that the truth about the situation Vin Diesel’s Ray Garrison faces is revealed, which is about forty-one minutes later than in the trailer. More frustratingly, while themes of perception of reality, memory and identity are much-ploughed cinematic furrows, they’re evergreens if dealt with smartly. Bloodshot quickly squanders them. But then, this is, after all, a Vin Diesel vehicle.