Skip to main content

Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #254: The Verdict

Paul Newman was one of the best actors of his time and Sydney Lumet one of the best directors ever so naturally the two of them working together is one of the greatest combinations imaginable. Based on a book adapted by David Mamet, The Verdict (1982) tells a fairly simple David and Goliath story of a washed-up lawyer fighting a case against a huge legal team. You could argue they don’t make movies like this anymore today, but in fact they are still being made every year. The difference is stories like this end up on the small screen where all the smart stories are made. Not so in the 1980s.

Sydney Lumet has made quite a few films on Empire magazine’s list of the 500 greatest movies ever made, notably his first feature 12 Angry Men. That one I had already seen when I watched The Verdict on Netflix a few weeks ago, so it felt a bit like a spiritual sequel. Whereas 12 Angry Men focused on what goes on in the jury room, this film focuses mostly on the lawyers, a little on the plaintiffs stuck between the two, and also stops in the judge’s office where he is imparting wisdom over his breakfast. Like many people I have seen my fair share of episodes of great legal shows like Law & Order, Boston Legal, and The Good Wife, but The Verdict is worth any of those shows if only to see Paul Newman defending the little guy.

Newman stars as Frank Galvin, a Boston lawyer who was once part of an elite law firm, but thanks to a series of unfortunate events is now reduced to giving his business cards at funerals in the desperate hope the bereaved might want to hire him to sue whoever is responsible for their loved ones’ death. Frank is heading for rock bottom and he knows it. After a night of heavy drinking at his usual bar he trashes his office, which was not much to look at in the first place.

Hope comes from his old friend Mickey (Jack Warden) who gives a case he is sure to win. A woman was admitted into a hospital run by the Archdiocese of Boston and was given the wrong anaesthetic during childbirth, causing her to lose her baby and to go into a coma. The patient’s family wants to settle so they get the money they need to take care of her and the Archdiocese and the hospital are more than happy to oblige. All Frank needs to do is negotiate a price and the case is closed.

Only the more Frank looks at the case, the less he is interested in settling. A doctor and possible witness for the case asks him if he is interested in getting to the truth, which is a damned good question. While taking pictures of the patient at the hospital for the case, he remembers she is not just a file: she is a human being who was seriously injured because somebody screwed up. Against the expectations of everyone from his clients to Mickey he decides to take the hospital to court. This, he decides, is the case he that will bring him out of his slump.

Easier said than done. Thinking his friend has made a huge mistake; Mickey joins forces with Frank and reminds him the Archdiocese will throw everything they have at the case now that they are fighting this in public. To his horror the lawyer who will represent the hospital is Ed Concannon (James Mason), whom Mickey describes as “the prince of fucking darkness.” A bit hyperbolic, but it is clearly established Frank and Mickey are fighting a formidable opponent. Concannon has a full boardroom of people doing research, coaching key witnesses, and using the media to sway public opinion.

Frank and Mickey on the other hand have to spend long hours at night desperately making phone calls to find witnesses or medical experts to help their case. In a sign of the times, when they do find a medical expert they are disappointed to see he is black, while Concannon’s people see this as good news for them. Not that they would ever says so in public of course.

With a story like this it is easy to predict what the jury will decide at the end, but Lumet and Mamet do an excellent of establishing tension and making you wonder whether or not Frank will get his comeback. If this case was taking place in real life odds are the lawyer with all the money would win. That is why we go to the movies: it is so much fun to see Goliath fall. 



Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…