As Frank Galvin, a drinking alcoholic and ambulance-chasing attorney racing to the bottom, Paul Newman delivers an unforgettable performance as a man who once had a bright future but has been turned into a worm by his own inability to look the other way. This isn’t something we learn until much later in the story, but it helps to make sense of the extraordinary turning point that launches the best courtroom drama of the last thirty-five years.
On a silver platter and out of pity, Galvin’s friend and former partner, Mickey (a brilliant Jack Warden), hands Galvin a case he calls a “moneymaker.” If Galvin wants to be set up for an easy life of drinking and carousing, all he need do is say yes to the settlement sure to come from a Catholic hospital that turned a young mother into a vegetable after giving her the wrong anesthesia.
Galvin’s game for the easy payoff until he visits his client, who he finds alone, impossibly young, in a coma she will never awake from, and hooked to a ventilator in a crowded hospital ward.
Defying Mickey, his client’s desperate family, doctors with sterling reputations, the most powerful law firm in Boston, the Archdiocese that owns the hospital, and even the judge — Galvin is offered everything he wants (including a win on his abysmal trial record) but turns it down.
At this point of no return, an already exhausted Galvin understands what he has just done and murmurs to himself, “Dumb, dumb, dumb…” But he still has no idea of the hell he’s just jumped into.
David Mamet’s screenplay — one of the best ever written — was rejected at least twice as being too dark; once by producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck, and once by Robert Redford, who was attached for a time to star. It was director Sidney Lumet and Newman who rescued Mamet’s screenplay, and therefore the movie.
I don’t want to dismiss the decades of talent and experience Lumet and Newman brought to the film — it is essential — but the screenplay is the third and irreplaceable corner of that perfect triangle. “The Verdict” could have been what it is with another star (Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall) and another director (Roman Polanski, Alan J. Pakula, Robert Benton, Milos Forman, Arthur Hiller…) but there was only one screenplay, and that was Mamet’s.
For good reason, many see “The Verdict” as a tale of Galvin’s redemption, but I disagree — and that is why I worship Mamet’s adaptation of Barry Reed’s novel. Yes, Galvin is a hopeless alcoholic reduced to handing business cards to grieving widows at their husband’s funeral. But this isn’t who Galvin is, it is merely what he has been turned into for daring to be an honorable man in a political machine that destroys honorable men.
“The Verdict” isn’t so much about redemption as it is about the price one pays for refusing to look the other way.
The Verdict” is not only a masterpiece, it is something even rarer: a perfect film; and one we can choose to learn something from, or not.
For those of you concerned with the potential for Catholic-bashing, don’t be. Mamet drops a coda near the end that explains everything. On top of that, what could be more Christian than a theme that explores the profit and privilege that comes with going with the corrupt flow, and the affliction that comes from refusing to?
“The Verdict” is available on Bluray for the first time. You can purchase it at Amazon.com.
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