25 years after directed the greatest courtroom drama ever made in “12 Angry Men,” acclaimed director Sidney Lumet returns with “The Verdict.” Starring Paul Newman in a performance best described as straight from the core, the film flips the idea of justice on its head and reveals the enduring human spirit that lies within the tireless pursuit of it.
Frank Galvin (Newman) is a lawyer and alcoholic resigned to checking the obituaries for possible cases and dropping his card off at wakes. When a colleague hands him a medical malpractice case that’s a shoo-in for a lucrative settlement outside of court, Galvin decides that there’s a good chance to win the case before a jury and decides to take on the hospital’s crack legal team (led by James Mason) without his client’s permission in attempt to seek true justice and resurrect his career.
Lumet’s film is the opposite of melodramatic, something to which a courtroom movie is quite susceptible. There’s barely a single bit of scoring and the characters express intense emotions with a respectable amount of reservation. One might think this undermines the impact of the David Mamet’s thought-provoking script, but in an unexpected way it really grounds the film. It’s not an emotional crusade against injustice or your typical underdog story. Instead, it’s about the harsh realities of the justice system despite our every effort to believe in a higher moral authority by which all men and women are bound, one that will right all wrongs.
Newman’s Oscar-nominated performance owes a lot to Lumet, the master of wide shots, long takes and careful zooms and pans. Without a heightened sense of drama and suspense from the camera-work, Newman would be hung out to dry. So much of his acting is occurring below the skin and inside the mind that only a top-notch director could show the audience inside of it. The single take starting with a wide courtroom shot during Frank’s closing statement and ending with him sitting down as if there was nothing else he could do might be the best example of Lumet and Newman working in incredible harmony.
Lumet gets that caliber of performance out of everyone from co-star Charlotte Rampling to James Mason’s unbreakable defense attorney. It says so much more about a film when it’s as effective without dialogue as it is with it. The quiet opening shot of Frank with a beer and cigarette playing his favorite pub pinball machine sets the tone right away that the audience is to infer mostly from this film. It’s a bit more work than usual, but “The Verdict” is a rare version of the timeless story about going on when the odds are stacked against you.
The Verdict (1982)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by David Mamet, Barry Reed (novel)
Starring: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason