“The Verdict” is a great film. Rightly considered one of the best courtroom dramas ever made, it is much more than that. It is a brilliant movie in which a great director is given a fabulous script, a perfect cast, and an extraordinarily talented cinematographer to create an unforgettable film.
“The Verdict” – Plot
Attorney Barry Reed penned a very interesting novel about an alcoholic lawyer who was once a shining star in the Boston legal firmament but who had fallen on hard times due to a bitter divorce and his incessant drinking. The lawyer, Frank Galvin, is handed a case sure to settle. His old mentor brings him the family of a woman in a vegetative state caused by complications from anesthesia during a routine operation. The defendants are the highly respected doctors, hospital, and the Catholic Church, which owns the hospital. The assumption is that the defendants will settle the case to make it go away and avoid bad publicity. All Frank Galvin has to do is negotiate a settlement and collect a fee. The plot takes off when the negotiations fail and the shaky barrister has to go to court for the first time in years. If it seems that I am being vague on the plot, I am. The joy of a courtroom drama is being surprised by the twists and turns and revelations.
“The Verdict” – Production And Casting
The notoriously picky Robert Redford was first attached to the project. Numerous scripts were written, top name directors came in and out of the project, and eventually the great Sidney Lumet took on the film. David Mamet’s script was brilliant but did not actually contain a verdict! Lumet had to convince the prickly Mamet that there had to be a denouement in the final act.
The plum role of Frank Galvin was the source of great excitement and interest among many movie stars. After Robert Redford turned it down, William Holden, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight and Roy Scheider were all considered. Reportedly, Frank Sinatra offered to do it for free. According to another account, Cary Grant called the producers and pleaded for the role, saying “before I was Cary Grant I was an actor.” Paul Newman’s career had seemingly stalled after “The Sting.” He made a lot of forgettable movies until 1981 and “Absence of Malice.” “The Verdict” is a triumph for Paul Newman. It is not just a great comeback movie. It is one of the greatest performances he gave in an amazing career. His portrayal is vulnerable, struggling, lost, and yet somehow heroic. He rises to the occasion, overcoming his own demons and seemingly impossible odds to reassert himself as a lawyer and as a man.
A Great Hero Needs a Great Villain
A friend who promoted professional wrestling once told me, “A great villain makes for a great match. People root for the hero, but the bad guy makes the match memorable.” So it is in a courtroom movie. The opposing lawyers have to be seen as real threats to one another. In “Anatomy of a Murder,” Jimmy Stewart is opposed by George C. Scott. In “Inherit the Wind,” Spencer Tracy is opposed by Fredric March. The sparks created when two great actors are in direct opposition to each other in a pitched battle makes for a dramatic conflict. On the other hand, when the opposing counsel is mismatched, it throws off the film’s balance. In “Ghosts of Mississippi,” Alec Baldwin plays a powerhouse lawyer opposed by Bill Smitrovich. You see the point.
Representing the incredibly powerful Catholic Church and hospital, the counsel had to be able to stand toe-to-toe with Paul Newman. And since Newman’s character is down on his luck, the character of Ed Concannon must not only be accomplished and smart, but also wealthy and unscrupulous as he defends doctors whose mistakes robbed a young woman of her life. The first choice to play the role was inspired. Burt Lancaster was chosen and I have no doubt would have been sensational. However, he had recently suffered two heart attacks and his health did not allow him to take the role. They turned to James Mason.
Like Paul Newman, James Mason had not been in an important movie for a number of years. The Verdict would be his last major film; he died just a few years later. As Ed Concannon, he creates one of the great villains of modern movies. He is a lawyer for hire, and only available for very wealthy clients. He serves the rich and privileged without concern to the merit of their cases. He is prepared to argue for any position as long as he’s paid. His law firm is rich, large and staffed with a seemingly endless number of brilliant young lawyers who are both in awe of and intimidated by him. Unlike the cartoon villains that inhabit superhero pieces, his is a much more menacing and realistic terror. He has powerful allies, a huge network, tremendous talent and no concern for the truth. It is implied in a key scene (but in a brilliant piece of writing never shown) that his side has bribed a key witness. Since we never see it happen, he makes Ed Concannon seem all the more menacing. Outwardly genial, he is totally ruthless. Frank Galvin seems like an ineffectual pipsqueak facing off against him.
“The Verdict” – Texture And Color
The cinematographer, Andrzej Bartkowiak, deserves special mention. The film is shot, costumed and lit to give it a feeling of weight and texture. The colors are an autumn palette, reflecting the age and position of the two lead councils. There are lots of browns, ambers and dark maroons. Very little of the film is shot outdoors and Andrzej Bartkowiak and Sydney Lumet make the interior shots both naturalistic and expressive. As Frank Galvin finds himself again later in his life, the filming reflects his battle against elements that seem so much larger than him. His office is small and shabby; Concannon’s office is fast and modern. Frank Galvin looks like a midget in the courtroom until his summation when he fills the screen.
“The Verdict” – Raising Courtroom Genre To An Art
A great courtroom drama can be very entertaining. But every once in a while, it can raise an important question or present itself in a way that lifts it out of the genre and into the realm of classic art. This is the case with “The Verdict.” The legal issue at stake is actually not terribly profound. It is, essentially, a malpractice case. But the film is not about how the trial will be resolved, as evidenced by the fact that David Mamet did not even include the jury’s final verdict in his draft of the screenplay. The Verdict is brilliant in its observations about how a broken man can find himself and attempt to reform a broken system. Like most great classic movies, the lead actor is surrounded by phenomenal supporting players. Jack Warden, Wesley Addy, Charlotte Rampling, Milo O’Shea
and Lindsay Crouse have never been better. And of course Paul Newman and James Mason are rightly regarded as two of the greatest film actors of all time.
“The Verdict” is one of those rare movies that gets better with each viewing. The second time you watch it you won’t be surprised by the plot twists and turns, but you’ll begin to notice the characterizations, brilliance of the script, and superb direction by a master of the art.
The Great Villain Blogathon
Thank you so much to three fantastic movie bloggers for sponsoring this fantastic Blogathon featuring great villains. Please click here to read the other fantastic posts and thank you to all the great bloggers, and especially our hosts, for encouraging people to enjoy classic film!