One of the top courtroom dramas ever made.

James Plath's picture

In a way, Paul Newman's emotional and wide-ranging performance in "The Verdict" earned him an Oscar. Though he lost Best Actor that year to Ben Kingsley ("Gandhi"), his sixth Best Actor-nominated performance had to have been good enough to make the Academy felt guilty. They decided to finally bestow an Oscar on the venerable actor, albeit an honorary one, in 1986. Then, as if they were still feeling a pang or two, they voted Newman a statue for the most sub-par film and pedestrian performance of his stellar career. He finally won an Oscar for "The Color of Money" (1986), rather than one of the other films for which he was nominated: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958), "The Hustler" (1961), "Hud" (1963), "Cool Hand Luke" (1967), "Absence of Malice" (1981), "The Verdict" (1982), or the much later "Nobody's Fool" (1994). But that's the way it goes with institutions and ballots.

I personally think he ought to have won for "The Hustler," "Cool Hand Luke," and, yes, "The Verdict." In this film, based on a first novel by Boston attorney Barry Reed, Newman plays Frank Calvin, a down-and-out attorney who's just about hit rock bottom. He's an alcoholic, his wife is gone, he was almost disbarred, and his case load has come down to a single one thrown his way by a good friend. All he has to do is handle an out-of-court settlement for a personal injury case against a Catholic hospital and two doctors--take the money and run. Though the Bishop (Edward Bins) wants to settle for $210,000, once Frank actually sees the woman who went into the hospital to have her third child and was given an anesthesia that it put her in a coma, he can't do it. He's determined to take the case to court, despite the protests of the woman's loved ones--his clients. But that's what makes this film compelling. Fighting on behalf of a vegetative life is, ironically, what gives Frank one final chance to rescue himself from a similar fate.

Written by one legend (David Mamet) and directed by another (Sidney Lumet), it would have been hard for "The Verdict" to fail--which is why so many Hollywood talents wanted to play the lead. Frank Sinatra even offered to do it for free. In one of the copious bonus features we learn that Robert Redford actually signed on to star, but insisted on so many revisions that it completely sanitized the character and disillusioned both him and everyone else. Enter Paul Newman, who liked the very things that Redford hated. He liked the fact that this character starts out most unsympathetically. Frank Galvin is so desperate that he reads the obituaries in the newspaper and goes to funerals to hand out his business card to the bereaved. He's so down-and-out that he has beer and raw egg for breakfast and plays the pinball machine each morning hoping it will show that his luck has changed. He's sunk so low that he slumps to the floor in an alcoholic stupor and has to be helped by his friend, Mickey (Jack Warden).

But the lower the character, the greater the potential for that character to grow and rise above it all, and the broad character arc that makes this film interesting. Intelligent dialogue and economical yet information-saturated scenes also make "The Verdict" one of the top courtroom dramas ever made. (What are some others, you wonder? Lumet's "12 Angry Men," "Judgment at Nuremburg," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "Inherit the Wind," to name a few.) And while we're watching the characters, Mamet works a nifty plot twist near the end which makes the film come full-circle in an ironic (and satisfying) way.

There's also a killer supporting cast, with Charlotte Rampling convincingly numb as a recent divorcee who becomes involved with Frank, and James Mason as his courtroom rival. Typical of underdog films, Frank only has Laura (Rampling) and Mickey to help him. The defense attorney has a team of 14 working on the case. And as Frank quickly learns, the rich are the ones who have power. So does the church, and so does Ed and his team. Frank's witnesses disappear, the judge is openly biased, and his best evidence is struck from the record. You think you've had a bad day?

"Your honor," Frank says after the judge takes over (and sabotages) his questioning of a witness, "if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it." There are enough lines like this, and performances to back them up, to make "The Verdict" a worthwhile and satisfying film.

The video is decent, but it doesn't appear to be an upgrade from the 2003 release. The color film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. There's more than a little grain in spots, and the colors seem slightly washed out in some of the daylight scenes, but the interiors are strong, and this is mostly an interior film.

The audio is nothing special. Nothing is marked, but it sounds like Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo in English, with an option to watch it in English, French, or Spanish Mono. For a 1982 film??? Subtitles are in English (CC) and Spanish. As with the video, it's nothing to cheer about, and nothing to shout about--just an acceptable soundtrack.

The 2003 edition of "The Verdict" had a commentary by Lumet and Newman and one featurette. This two-disc edition has the same commentary and extra plus three all-new short features. Except for overlapping the features are actually pretty good--especially the ones with Lumet on-camera. He's full of stories and information, and he clearly casts a long shadow. Even Paul Newman, in "The Craft of Acting," ends up talking mostly about directorial decisions that make actors' lives easier, or help them to feel more confident about taking chances. One poignant moment in this 2006 feature has Newman saying how much he reveres excellence, and how he hopes he can continue to do that still. Of course, he recently made the announcement that he was retiring from acting because he no longer had the memory to perform at the level he expects of himself.

In "Craft of Directing," Lumet takes the stage and really shares a lot about, not just about what he does, but about how he thinks. It's an excellent featurette, and Lumet appears again on "Milestones in Cinema History: The Verdict" along with others involved in the project. Producer Richard D. Zanuck tells a hilarious story about Mamet's first draft of "The Verdict," which ended with the jury leaving the courtroom to deliberate. "But this is called 'The Verdict,' Zanuck says, "and there is no verdict. Are we going to have to put a question mark at the end of the title?" Mamet, he says, huffed out of the meeting and expressed his displeasure by flipping him "the bird."

My least favorite "feature" was "The Films of Paul Newman," which I clicked on with all the expectations of seeing a nice retrospective of Newman's career. Instead, I get eight of his film titles to click on for (you guessed it) a trailer. But that was happily offset by my favorite feature, a vintage making-of extra that catches all of the principals right there at the moment when it's all fresh in their minds.

I have to say, though, that I don't know where Newman was on the commentary track. Maybe he talked when I went to the bathroom, or raided the refrigerator, or nodded off briefly, but all I heard was Lumet, and a lot of silences. Now, Lumet's comments are so worthwhile that you don't mind the dead air, but I did wonder about what happened to Newman.

Bottom Line:
Though "The Verdict" didn't win any Oscars, it was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Supporting Actor. Set in the '80s, it's still highly relevant today, and Newman's performance is timeless. I can't think of another down-and-out cinematic character that we come to care about as much as this fellow and his crusade to save himself from himself.


Film Value