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Revisiting Sidney Lumet's The Verdict

Sidney Lumet’s “The Verdict” is the best courtroom drama ever. It is also one of those rare features that doesn’t wear down with repeated viewings. That would seem odd for an entry that’s best remembered for the shock of its resolution, which should only be able to surprise the audience the first time around. And yet the whole movie has the same impact repeatedly, as only the very best films do. 

“The Verdict” includes one of the most remarkable character arcs in the movies. Attorney Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) goes from living in an initial state of hell to hitting an even lower, almost unbearable rock bottom. When he finally manages to come out, he leaves a couple of the supporting characters in different states of perdition he was able to flee.

The film deals with Galvin, an attorney whose career had been destined for greatness and was eventually derailed by the harshness of the politics in his profession. That is, until the legal case of a woman left in a vegetative state during childbirth falls on his lap. In the movie's first act, we see him sleepwalking, not so much as an ambulance chaser but one of hearses (trying to make a buck from people who’ve just lost a loved one). His existence is made manageable by alcohol disguised expertly in every way imaginable. What’s unique about this moneymaker of a case is that all he has to do is mostly keep his mouth closed. Everything will take care of itself, while “trying to do the right thing” by going to court might mean ruining the lives of innocents and surely his own in the process.

Much like the film’s rewarding moments are not diminished through repeated viewings, the pain of seeing Frank suffer from his mistakes never becomes any easier. “The Verdict” is one of those movies like “United 93” that we watch time and time again, hoping that things will turn out differently this time, that Frank will simply accept the settlement offered by the archdiocese. On the other hand, settling the case certainly won’t deliver Frank from his hell, as it’s not too hard to imagine him spending away most of his cut on alcohol and buying rounds for his friends soon enough. 

Lumet taps into the audience's conformist interests. We want to tackle him so he’ll come to his senses and remain in his hell of choice than risk an even worse fate, one that he probably won’t be able to subdue with all the alcohol in the world. One of the things that makes this movie so special is that it seems to have the same brand magic as “The Shawshank Redemption,” with a main character that falls in the dumps at a rather advanced point of the movie. It becomes impossible to imagine that the most joyous ones can soon follow these moments.

One of the most astounding scenes in the movie comes when a seemingly unremarkable, shy nurse enters a courtroom. The impact of this scene is such that when comparing it to the very similar moment in “A Few Good Men” when the great Jack Nicholson (in a monumental role that terrifies everybody in his wake) takes the stand, it overshadows it. This is just one example of how aware Lumet is, in scenes big and small, of how exactly the audience will respond based on how he has set them up, the very essence of movie directing.  

I love how the script makes the lies uttered by each character the detonator that sends them to their perdition. The best case in point is the defense lead lawyer Ed Concannon (James Mason), better known as the “Prince of Darkness,” who asks all the wrong questions that make the nurse’s testimony all the more damaging to his side. They are fueled by the lies he’s been fed by the very doctor he is defending. This is a character that shouldn’t even be the movie’s villain. After all, his mistake that cost a young woman and her child of their life was human as could be. Again, his doom came from his decision to lie. The irony here is that the original compensation on the settlement was appropriate for a victim who’ll never get her life back. But here again, it was the archbishop’s decision to hire an attorney determined to win at all costs, regardless of the truth, that will lead to a final verdict that will probably bankrupt an institution that seems to have been founded for the sole purpose of contributing to the common good.

Still, perhaps the term “living in hell” in this movie is best applied to Laura (played by Charlotte Rampling). Her part is all the more devastating because she is desperate to do the right thing again but never manages to gather the courage, even though she stood two feet from a pay phone with the information to win the case for the defendants in plenty of time. This is the best imaginable example of the old saying, “The way to hell is paved with good intentions.” 

I love how Lumet handles all of her big revelation scenes. She creates one of the greatest of movie betrayals in just about complete silence, be it when Warden finds the written proof, when he shares it with Frank in a long shot from a distance with plenty of dialogue that we never get to hear (nor we need to) and when Frank faces her in a state of utter wrath. One of the best things about “The Verdict” is how Frank manages to leave his hell with the help of someone so endlessly good like the Jack Warden character, one that is there throughout for him with no other interest but to pull him back (thank God he wasn’t made to be the traitor here, that would just have been too much to deal with). On her part, the feeling conveyed by the movie is that Laura will probably never be able to leave her hell.

The verdict itself in these kinds of movies is usually their weak link. Anybody in Hollywood can easily write a resolution that tries to revindicate the main character and his beliefs. But few have been able to do it as convincingly as “The Verdict.” Frank’s final, sublime closing argument is one of cinema’s great moments and on the same level as Newman’s own (no pun intended) final rendition in “The Hustler.” Frank doesn’t have to mention any of the case's specifics here. His words hit so close to home because right there and then, he leaves his hell behind by way of the truth. In the process, he leaves the jury effectively with no choice but to look for such, in this case, legal trappings be damned (never mind that on the way there, he impersonates different people on the phone and even commits a felony by breaking into a nurse’s mailbox). It becomes fairly obvious that by the end of his summation, Frank’s redemption is all but complete, and the verdict itself, no matter how powerful, is just the amazing cherry on top.

A movie like “The Verdict” would be the crowning achievement by any actor if not because Paul Newman had already done “The Hustler” early in his career. These two entries, the very best in magnificent Newman’s career, would seem on the surface to be completely different until you realize that down deep, they have the same core subject. They both deal with a character who lies to himself and has to endure the necessary hardships to bring him back to reality. Both films also shake their audience to their core, as the main character’s heartbreaking experiences are all about self-awareness and are always relatable. And the two are among the rarest films that leave you feeling transformed by their end.

“The Hustler” and “The Verdict” are in my top ten favorite films. But perhaps the former is higher on my list because it deals with how we lie to ourselves about our failures, a subject that feels even more universal than how people hide their pain with alcohol.

Gerardo Valero

Gerardo Valero is lives in Mexico City with his wife Monica. Since 2011 he's been writing a daily blog about film clichés and flubs (in Spanish) on Mexico's Cine-Premiere Magazine. His contributions to "Ebert's Little Movie Glossary" were included in the last twelve editions of "Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook."

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