>> Saturday, August 15, 2009
USA/C-129m./Dir: Sidney Lumet/Wr: David Mamet/Cast: Paul Newman (Frank Galvin), Charlotte Rampling (Laura Fischer), Jack Warden (Mickey Morrissey), James Mason (Ed Concannon), Milo O’Shea (Judge Hoyle), Lindsay Crouse (Kaitlin Costello)
While everyone calls broken-down, alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) an ambulance chaser, he doesn’t actually bother chasing any ambulances. Instead he hands out his business card at funerals, which leaves a lot more time to slug down Bushmill’s at the local bar. However, when Frank’s old friend Mickey (Jack Warden) throws a medical malpractice case his way, it reawakens Frank’s passion for his profession. Frank sees the case as perhaps his last opportunity to do the right thing--the just thing. Consequently, he insists on bringing the suit to trial, despite the fact that Mickey, the Archdiocese of Boston (who run the hospital that Frank is suing), and even Frank’s own clients want him to settle the complaint out of court. Unfortunately, Frank’s rekindled belief in justice may backfire on him, because the opposition has engaged superstar attorney, Ed Concannon (James Mason), whom other lawyers refer to as the “Prince of F***ing Darkness.”
Paul Newman was handed one of his greatest roles in the character of drunk and desperate lawyer Frank Galvin; and he rose to the occasion, delivering one of his best performances. He is believable throughout, despite the fact that The Verdict requires him to hit a number of varied notes--cynical, sloppily drunk, anxious, fearful, needy, thoughtful, resilient, and even confident upon occasion. Newman is at his very best in the film’s many stretches of silence, acting only with his eyes, his hands, and the slump of his shoulders. The performance was deservedly honored with a nomination for the Best Actor Oscar (which Newman eventually lost to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi).
The film itself is almost as good as its lead performance. David Mamet’s screenplay is often quiet and unfolds slowly, yet it is never boring. While some may scoff at a few of the legal details or the extent of judicial prejudice that is displayed in the film, Mamet’s central idea that the law is often unconcerned with what is right and just rings completely true. Besides, The Verdict isn’t really about the law at all. At its core, it is a story about one man’s redemption. The only real criticism that I can level towards the script is that Mamet is too much in love with puzzles and plot twists. Consequently, there is a revelation towards the end of the film that is supposed to be a shocker, but it comes off as one of the least successful aspects of the story.
One area in which the writing excels is in its depiction of Frank’s alcoholism. While most writers would resort to the cliché of having their character quit the sauce cold turkey as part of their attempt at redemption, Frank Galvin never once considers doing without his whiskey. Instead, Frank uses the booze to steady his nerves, to celebrate his small victories, and to give him the courage to face overwhelming odds. This choice adds to the believability of both the story and the central character. Whereas it would have been ridiculous for Frank to attempt to revive his career while simultaneously battling alcohol withdrawal.
Sidney Lumet’s straightforward direction and the confident supporting performances by pros like Warden, Rampling, O’Shea, and Mason add greatly to the effectiveness of the drama; but this is really Newman’s show. His performance alone makes this liquored legal drama a “Booze Movies” must-see.
One last observation--Newman’s character drinks Bushmill’s throughout the picture; but when we see the wealthy, bigwig lawyer played by James Mason pour a drink from his bar, he serves Jack Daniel’s. I’ll stick with the down-and-out crowd. They drink better whiskey.
Drinks Consumed--Whiskey (mostly Bushmill’s), beer, and a few unnamed cocktails
Intoxicating Effects--The shakes, staggering, stumbling, soused sex, and belching
Potent Quotables--FRANK (to a pretty girl in a bar): Would ya like a drink?
LAURA: I’d like an apartment.
FRANK: Would ya settle for a drink?
LAURA: No. Thank you.
FRANK: (Shrugs) I had a good day today. (He walks away and heads for his whiskey) Let me at ‘em! Oh boy, gentlemen, to ya. To ya. To ya. I cut myself so badly shaving this morning my eyes almost cleared up. Bad? Bad.
Video Availability--The Verdict Two-Disc Collector's Edition (20th Century Fox)
Similarly Sauced Cinema--James Stewart defends a murder suspect (Ben Gazzara) with the help of a boozy colleague (Arthur O’Connell) in Anatomy of a Murder (1959).