It’s a complete shock to me that Fox didn’t include my next selection, The Verdict, in their 75th Anniversary box set. Ok, I can understand the omission of Porky’s, Taps, and even 9 to 5, but The Verdict? It’s a bona fide classic, in every sense of the word. It garned five Oscar nominations, unanimous critical praise, and took in a decent take at the BO too.
And looking at it now, some 35 years later, I just can’t believe how f**cking good it is, mostly because of its brilliant screenplay, doubtlessly one of the greatest ever written. It’s tight and taut, without a single superfluous scene, and craftfully structured so as to keep you absolutely riveted for its complete two-hour-plus running time. And the dialogue is also top-notch, sharp and witty without being overrwrittren. Who’s to credit? None other than David Mament, potentially the greatest screenwriter of modern times.
And no, I shouldn’t undermine Sidney Lumet’s role as director – ho knows enough to let the lines breathe, without excess direction. (The film, in fact, does more with silence than I initially remembered: a lost art these days.) And he knows he enough to let his actors act, notably his lead, Paul Newman, who is allowed so much free, uninterrupted reign in his performance that at times I felt like I was watching live theater. It’s easily a career achievement – it’s a shame he didn’t get the Best Actor Oscar for it – that year Ben Kingsley was a slight upset with Gandhi - instead winning for his reprise of Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, four years later.
But seeing the film also made me nostalgic for its era, roughly the years 1977 through 1983, when so many mainstream films were literate and well-crafted, handling serious-minded topics like crime, courtrooms and corruption, and tackling head-on social concerns like labor reform, environmentalism and racial/gender equality. (Newman himself appeared in some of them, like Absence of Malice, and examination of journalistic ethics, and Fort Apache, The Bronx, about the plight of urban law-enforcement.) At the time, I think, we took thee films for granted; now they come off looking like classics, what with the current, worrisome state of studio filmmaking.
Paul Newman is Frank Gavin, a Boston lawyer who, after a history of career missteps, has become a pathetic, boozing ambulance chaser. His partner, Mickey (Jack Warden), has found a promising case for him: a pregnant woman went into a hospital to deliver, was given the wrong anesthetic, and is now in a vegetative state after suffering cardiac arrest. Frank takes the case – his clients are the woman’s sister and her husband – but realizes he’s up against a goliath, as the hospital is owned by a rich and powerful Catholic archdiocese, represented by a prestigious law firm headed by Ed Concannon (James Mason). They offer Frank a settlement of $210,000; at one time he would’ve accepted, but now, especially after discussing he case with a doctor who’s convinced his colleagues in question were negligent, he’s ready to go to trial.
But Concannon plays hardball: the doctor Frank talked to and was hoping to call as a witness, has mysteriously “disappeared,” and the judge has also denied Frank’s request for extension, clearly angered that the lawyer is going to trial in the first place. His only comfort of late seems to come in the form of a woman he’d met at a bar – Laura Fischer – and things in general seem to be looking up when he finds another doctor to testify. But the MD isn’t so great under fire, and now it appears that Laura is a stoolie for Concannon. Frank’s only hope comes in the form of the admitting nurse, who testifies that the pregnant woman had eaten too soon before the procedure, a fact covered up by the defense. Despite Concannon’s best efforts to strike the nurse’s testimony from the record, it’s enough to convince the jury of the hospital’s guilt, and Frank wins the case, against all odds.
Perhaps The Verdict’s greatest asset is in how completely and totally sympathetic its protagonist is. I mean, you really want this guy to win, no matter what. (He may be the most likeable movie lawyer since Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.) This is, in essence, a more cerebral Rocky, and like Rocky, much of that has to do with the delineation of Frank’s character, complete with hard-luck backstory. But yet, there’s still a spark in his eye – the feeling that he has one more case left in him, even if it is buried deep under layers of despair and self-defeatism. There’s a great scene, early on, in which we can see this spark: he goes to the hospital to look at his comatose client, taking Polaroid shots of her as evidence. And as the pictures develop and images appear (in a long take), Frank gets his epiphany – we can tell by his eyes – and his resolution is palpable.
Why are we so drawn to films such as these, courtroom dramas in which lawyers rise to the occasion to uphold justice? Perhaps we’re so jaded by the legal system, besieged by news stories in which money-hungry lawyers defend the patently guilty (even though it’s their job), or accept easy, windfall payoffs without fighting for their convictions. As a society, we know we need lawyers, we know we need cops, politicians, etc., but we also ten to foster a damaging mistrust of them, one that seems to get worse with each passing year. So when we get a film about a noble politician (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) or a noble cop (Serpico), we celebrate it, and it becomes a hit, then a classic.
I tend to see movies in parts these days, given my time constraints, but when I started The Verdict, I would up seeing the whole thing in one shot. It’s just that gripping. And that doesn’t happen to me much.