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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

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.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Doctor, eh? You’re not in the best of shape yourself, though, are you?

Doctor Who  Season 26 – Worst to Best
I’m not a big Seventh Doctor fan. For me, Doctor Who pretty much ended with Season 23 (and not because it was awful: see here). Yes, there have been a few nu-Who reprieves (mostly notably Matt Smith’s first season), but the McCoy era flaunted an abundance of sins, from a lead who wasn’t up to snuff, to a script-editor messaging his social conscience wrapped in a breeze block (or bilge bag), to production values that made any given earlier era look absurdly lavish in comparison. And then there was the “masterplan” (which at least lends Season 24 a rather innocuous and relatively inoffensive quality by contrast).

Nevertheless, on the occasions I do return to the era, I’m always minded to give it a fair shake. And while that resolve inevitably crumbles within minutes, under the duress of cold harsh reality, it has, at times, led to a positive reappraisal (The Happiness Patrol, and, to an extent, perhaps unfathomably, Time and the Rani). So we’ll see ho…