Movies We Like
The all-time great director Sidney Lumet is often associated with his ear for the New York streets (The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Prince of The City). He's also acclaimed for his skill at balancing his films’ often loud histrionics (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network). So, ironically, he hit a home run late in his career with a legal drama that actually gets its power through silence.
The film is written by a master of gritty verbal sparring, David Mamet. Upon its release in ’82, The Verdict instantly joined the ranks of the all-time great courtroom dramas — an elite company, with flicks like Anatomy of a Murder and Witness for the Prosecution. And the role of alcoholic lawyer Frank Gavin gave Paul Newman his best role in 15 years (at least since Cool Hand Luke in ’67).
The Verdict is a powerhouse slow burn about redemption and about justice for the little guy, but unlike so many films in that flavor, the themes are not screamed at you. On the streets of Boston, Gavin is a drunk ambulance chaser. He’s washed-up, humiliated by divorce and questions legal tactics that have gotten him in trouble. He’s a hustler, but tired and past his peak. At the time it was fascinating to see the still handsome Newman let himself go there, as so many of his best characters had been guys who rode their arrogance over their obstacles. Here, you root for the character to find that old cocksureness.
He stumbles onto a case about a woman who has been in a coma for years, due to a doctor’s negligence. He’s offered a decent settlement by the Catholic church who own the hospital but instead opts for his day in court, aided by a lawyer bud, Mickey (Jack Warden, nearing his end as a major character actor that goes back to Lumet’s 12 Angry Men). The church pulls all the stops to cover their ass, including bringing in superstar corporate lawyer, Ed Concannon (played wonderfully by the great British actor James Mason, in some ingenious, outside the box casting). Along the way, he has a fling with another barfly (more cleaver casting with Charlotte Rampling, the British actress who specialized in art-house iciness), though her character’s arc may be the film’s one misstep.
Newman, who brought a certain mix of charm and Actor’s Studio realism to his roles, had a major artistic run in the ’60s, beginning with The Hustler and Hud and ending with the mega-hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But the ’70s were not as kind to the still handsome but aging pretty-boy. Though he had hits with the The Sting, Slap Shot and the less admired The Towering Inferno, his status as an film rebel was less heightened against the new crop of less attractive talents like Nicholson, Hoffman and Hackman. The ’80s began for him with a return to the dying disaster-movie genre, the unwatchable When Time Ran Out..., but he hit a little critical streak with Fort Apache the Bronx, Absence of Malice and then apexed with The Verdict. Though Newman would win his long overdue Oscar for the unnecessary sequel to The Hustler, The Color of Money, now decades later, it’s The Verdict that is the perfect culmination of roles, age and life experience that puts a neat bow on his exciting filmography. And he would go onto make another dozen-plus movies over the next 25 years (acting-wise, probably highlighted by his crushing senior performance in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge), working with a diverse group of collaborators ranging from The Coen Brothers to Pixar. With The Verdict, Lumet, Newman and Mamet took the old underdog courtroom-drama, went against the grain of the loud and showy, and made a quiet classic.