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.