“This is the case. There are no other cases.”
The first thing you notice about Paul Newman in The Verdict is he’s suddenly an old man. Even as he grayed prior to Sidney Lumet’s remarkable 1982 legal thriller, he still seemed virile, strong, and capable of squiring anyone under the sun by flashing those baby blues of his.
But in The Verdict, as gone to seed alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin, he enters a dingy watering hole, orders a whiskey and finds he must sip it off the bar top because his hands are shaking so badly he can’t hold the shot glass on his own. The effect is staggering. This cinematic monument to masculinity reduced to humiliating himself in front of a bar room of fellow losers just to break the shakes.
One of the best things about Paul Newman’s career is he was never afraid to play heels. Think of him as the brash and callow “Fast Eddie Felson” in The Hustler, or his nearly irredeemable son of a rancher in Hud. For all his beauty and charisma, Newman often turned those gifts on their head. Even in his later years, as the older “Fast Eddie” in The Color of Money, or the aging gangster in “Road To Perdition”, Newman knew how to turn those blue eyes into cold steel.
Newman’s Frank Galvin is too broken to be a full-on heel. His once promising legal career has gone sideways, his wife has left him, and the drink is calling him as soon as he rises from the bed in his fleabag apartment. He’s a dead dog short of a country song. He is not a likable character though. He’s pathetic actually. A fact evinced most perfectly when he takes Charlotte Rampling to bed and has to turn over the photo of his ex-wife on the night stand. Never before had Newman gone full-on sad sack. He does so in The Verdict without the slightest bit of vanity.
The crux of The Verdict is Galvin’s shot at redemption in the form of defending a woman victimized by a tragic act of medical malpractice. Which plays out with a hard-scrabble worn down to the knuckle integrity. Even in finding that bit of peace, more losses mount for Galvin. Nothing comes easy.
Newman is ably supported by the slightly weathered beauty of Charlotte Rampling, a wonderfully profane and crusty Jack Warden (is there any other kind of Jack Warden? Would you want there to be?), and an incredibly sketchy James Mason, who pronounces the word “disallowed” as if it were slicked up with vintage olive oil and composed of about 16 extra vowels.
Speaking of the dialogue in The Verdict, every word onscreen was written by the gifted David Mamet. The king of stylized, cut to the bone, rat-a-tat wordsmithing. Every line that escapes the lips of every character is a distinct – often bitter – little gem. I’ve often thought of Mamet as a modern day Shakespeare. A man who has turned the English language on its head in terms of theatrical performance. To do Mamet justice though, you have to make the words sing without drawing too much attention to the very specific rhythm of his creation. Never before or since have his words been spoken so naturally and effectively as here. I credit director Sidney Lumet and his unfailing ear for the spoken word and his very specific understanding of New York City for this. I can’t imagine anyone being a better choice to helm this film.
I’ve heard many a time that Sidney Lumet was a rudimentary visualist. But when the verdict in The Verdict comes in, a swooping crane shot soars over and lands on Paul Newman’s wizened and worn out face, the effect is glorious. It lands on you like a 60 pound stone. The expression on Newman’s face perfectly matches that of the audience. Shock, exhilaration, relief. Newman doesn’t just physically collapse into his chair, he crumples internally. He is a man who finally, after years of failures and disappointments, gets something right. In taking up the case of his voiceless client, he rediscovers his own. There is a reason why Frank Galvin was put on this earth.
He had forgotten. The jury helps him remember.
As I mentioned earlier, the film is no easy piece. Through this brutal case, with all that’s stacked against him, Frank Galvin gets hurt even more. He suffers a terrible betrayal. Questions his own capacity and rigor every step of the way. He barely hangs on. Even though the outcome is just, only a fool would bet on Frank Galvin completely turning his career around – sustaining this hard won victory. Even the close of the film is muted. The Verdict is about a man who finds himself alone in a dump of an office- nothing but him and a ringing phone he will never answer. And finds, by god, that empty room and his resurrected integrity is more than enough.
At least for now.
“This is the case. There are no other cases.”