Paul Newman is one of those people who bring other people into theaters. They’ll watch him on reruns when they’re surfing through the channels or tell their children and grandchildren about him. That’s just it. He’s a universal actor who transcends the years with his magnetism and charisma. A lot of folks would follow him to the ends of the earth cinematically-speaking, and he plays the bums and ne’er do wells like nobody else.
In some ways, it seems like he should have no place in the film like The Verdict. It’s a slow, brooding drama that churns and grinds methodically through a script courtesy of David Mamet, adapted from Barry Reed’s novel. It’s completely void of humor or charm in many respects. It’s bitter and battered, personified by Frank Galvin, a washed-up lawyer drowning in booze and drifting in a fog of cigarette smoke. His pedigree isn’t so hot either. In the last three years, he’s had four cases and has not won a single one. To make matters worse, he’s an ambulance chaser, the type of prosecutor that every self-respecting citizen would scoff at with contempt.
The film generally lacks polish or pizzazz for that matter, but Paul Newman and director Sidney Lumet are well-established professionals, who know how to develop the courtroom drama in such a way that it remains compelling. All the necessary bits and pieces are there to go along with generally stark and somber visuals.
James Mason is the opposition, a white-haired man with a penchant for winning and doing his homework so that all the holes are stopped up. He’s representing not only two renowned doctors but also the Archdiocese of Boston since they own St. Catherine’s hospital. Galvin’s mentor and colleague is Mickey (Jack Warden), who watches out for him despite his many failings. Being divorced, Frank also tries to find companionship with the aloof beauty Laura (Charlotte Rampling).
Galvin is tempted by a giant settlement, but there’s something inside of himself that says, take the case to trial. Of course, right from the beginning, it’s a train wreck, because he cannot find the witnesses he needs, and Ed Concannon is a real pro with an extensive legal team to do his bidding. On the other side of the room, you only have Frank and Mickey.
They’re able to dig up key witness Kaitlin Costello, although Concannon turns that against them as well. Furthermore, Frank learns something about Laura that doesn’t help. And there we are at the end of the case, a gray-haired lawyer sitting there seemingly defeated. But he does the only thing he can do, in all sincerity plead with the members of the jury to do what is right and just. That is all he can do.
Some might find comparisons to The Verdict in Lumet’s earlier masterpiece 12 Angry Men, including the casting of Jack Warden and Edward Binns. However, I think what makes the director’s courtroom dramas work so well is that they really don’t dwell too much on the actual courtroom. 12 Angry Men is about the discussion going on behind closed doors and The Verdict concerns itself with all that is going on outside in preparation. We see Frank for who he is in the office and out of it. Thus, by the time we actually get into that court of law there’s so much more riding on this verdict.
What’s especially striking about Newman’s performance is that there is almost a complete absence of drama. There is one violent outburst and aside from that, it’s as if he’s utterly fed up with the world. Throwing his hands up in a sense and giving in. Instead, he plays pinball or sits pensively with a drink in hand. That’s why this case is so important because it means something. It signifies an attempt to care again about right and wrong. But the question is, Does anything actually change in the character of Frank Galvin? We leave him sulking in his office, slowly nursing yet another drink as the phone rings out in the silence. What’s the verdict then? Is he a winner or a loser? I’m not sure he even knows the answer to that question.