“THE VERDICT” – 4 1/2 STARS

I really enjoy courtroom dramas and “The Verdict” is a good one. It’s directed by Sidney Lumet and stars Paul Newman in one of his finest performances. David Mamet adapted the Barry Reed novel of the same name. The film received high praise from critics and Newman, Lumet, and Mamet each received Oscar nominations. It’s unique compared to other courtroom pictures in that the main case isn’t a huge unfolding mystery. In fact the case at the center of the film is pretty cut and dry. It’s the organizing of their defense, the fighting through the legal process, and the presentation of the case that fuels the narrative.

But “The Verdict” is also the tale of redemption. Underneath the courtroom drama is the story of a man who has watched his life crumble and but now sees a chance to get his life in order. Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, a boozing Boston lawyer who has found himself resorting to ambulance chasing in order to pick up clients. In fact, he’s only had four cases in three years and lost them all. Just like his practice, his personal life is in shambles and he finds his only destructive solace at the bottom of a bottle. Newman nails this character and his Oscar nomination for the role was well deserved. It’s a nuanced performance that shows Frank as more than just a down-on-his-luck alcoholic. Newman expertly conveys the inner conflict within Frank and it’s that internal, personal struggle that drives one of the picture’s most compelling components.

Frank’s luck appears to change when an old friend and former partner Mickey (Jack Warden) hooks him up with a medical malpractice case that should be a slam dunk. But what kind of movie would this be if everything was all sunshine and flowers? Frank decides to take the case to trial and turns down a substantial settlement which baffles everyone including his clients. He then finds himself up against a biased judge and a prominent law firm led by Ed Concannon (played wonderfully by James Mason). It’s a legal David and Goliath story with Frank running into one complication after another. Add to it his personal and emotional fragility and you have the ingredients for a top-notch story.

David Mamet’s screenplay is intelligent and razor-sharp. The dialogue is well written and the pacing is methodical. While Mamet’s story intentionally moves deliberately, it does seem to spin its wheels a little during the middle of the film. And some people may argue that the movie isn’t the most detailed and cohesive courtroom drama. But Mamet doesn’t use the courtroom as his main focus. It’s a vehicle that allows this tired and broken man to try for redemption by doing the right thing. Lumet’s direction is fantastic and his ability to capture emotion and intensity through silence is impressive. He also gives the movie a gritty edge and authenticity that perfectly fits.

While Lumet and Mamet’s work is solid and there is a wonderful supporting cast, everything comes back to Paul Newman. Almost always seen on-screen as the handsome and vibrant performer, here he looks old, worn-down, and defeated. He perfectly captures this character and we never doubt him for a second. There’s no hard-to-believe miracle transformation. Instead we see someone taking one step at a time trying to dig himself out of the hole he made. Newman sells all of this with a down-to-earth genuineness that is easy to buy into. “The Verdict” may not be the most highly polished courtroom movie but it certainly holds its own. It’s an emotionally charged drama with a redemptive subtext that worked for me on so many levels. And how can you not love watching Newman dominate the screen in what is arguably his greatest performance.

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