Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Verdict

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Verdict

When I first saw The Verdict, it was in a classroom and the teacher only intended to show part of it. When the students begged him to let it keep playing, he relented. It's that kind of movie. It fits snugly into its genre, in this case the courtroom drama, complete with suspense, mystery, melodrama, betrayal, reversal of fortune. If you're looking for a night's entertainment it will certainly provide that. But it also offers more, giving its subtext enough weight to escape being mere bait to draw viewers into the thriller. Partly this is due to the stately style, a graceful and glacial grandeur whose conviction has deeper roots than many similarly styled contemporary thrillers. It's a last gasp for classicism, and at its center sits Paul Newman. He plays an emotional and professional wreck, a drunken lawyer on his last legs, but it's not hard to believe that this man was once filled with potential and probably moved and worked with a graceful ease. Frank Galvin might be a ruin, but he's a glorious ruin at that.


The choice to make Galvin just barely dignified in his disgrace could be questionable (should he be utterly pathetic instead, fully earning his status as an underdog?) but it fits the tone of the picture. The cinematography, with its rich tones and interplay of shadow and rough-hewn texture; the direction, sitting the camera at a remove, giving the actors space to breathe and time to sink into their parts; the screenplay, sharply (and surprisingly un-indulgently) written by David Mamet to provide moral clarity and articulate conversation; the Boston setting, slightly decayed but suggesting a world steeped in history; all of this winds together to make The Verdict a class act.

A few words on, specifically, Sidney Lumet's direction is worthy before delving in further. Lumet is probably the greatest non-auteur director of his generation, quite possibly of all time. What this means is that he does not apply his vision like a stamp to every film he makes but coaxes all that is strong and good to the surface of the material. This is not to say he doesn't have missteps - how could he not in a busy career that spans 50 years (and The Wiz is a truly wretched exercise). But when he works, his movies have a fine-tuned, almost delicate attraction and there's actually something liberating about his achievement because it isn't overwhelmed by a personality.

In The Verdict, Lumet pulls a Pakula-like grittiness and darkness from the teeth of its conventions. Shots are long and often very wide - seldom is a scene established without extensive recourse to its trappings; we always know where the characters are situated, the context within which they move. And in the process of foregrounding the characters' environment, Lumet achieves that classical grace which gives the film, even at its grittiest and darkest, a lilting yet almost-soaring sense of beauty, almost of lost transcendence. Despite casting the institutional Church as a villain, this often feels like a Catholic film (this is Boston after all, and Galvin at one point refers to his religious beliefs). There is a sense of personal responsibility, contextualized within a society that one is inescapably a part of, and Galvin's nobility arises from his dogged pursuit of justice, batting almost blindly through the darkness that surrounds him.

And this is a very dark movie. Not just its rusty, crumbling, silhouetted visuals, but also its subject matter and characterization evoke this darkness. One senses deep corruption, of despair among the have-nots, and an abdication of duty by the privileged. (I warn you to cease and desist if you're unfamiliar with the story or its outcome.) Galvin is a lost soul, but there's still a spark of determination and righteousness in him years after he was kicked to the curb by a big and corrupt law firm. When he sees an opportunity for redemption he grabs at it, but without realizing what he's gotten himself into. In the case of the trail, a lawsuit filed against doctors who gave a pregnant woman the wrong anesthesia and turned her into a vegetable, the refusal to accept a settlement haunts and torments Galvin until his new girlfriend sharply admonishes him and summons forth an oddly empowering shame.

As for that new girlfriend, a young woman Galvin meets in a bar, her name is Laura Fischer (what wonderful names in this movie), and she's played by Charlotte Rampling, whose beauty evokes a weary sadness. Her emergence in Galvin's life is his other opportunity for redemption, a personal redemption to complement the professional. It doesn't work out nearly as well, because Laura is a spy hired by the big firm that is defending the doctors in court. A scene with Concannon, the head of the defense's legal team (a towering performance by James Mason, wielding charm with a sense of effortless, almost unknowing, moral abdication) confirms Laura's culpability as well as her guilt. Ebert's review classifies her as an alcoholic, and though the point isn't hammered home as strongly as with Galvin, we do see her drinking a lot. And in this vital scene with Concannon, what does he offer her along with her check and the promise that she will now rise quickly in Boston after years away? A glass of bourbon.

The drinking bonds Galvin to Laura, both on the surface - as it's supposed to - and underneath, to the point where Laura seems genuinely conflicted about what she's doing. But like the addict driven beyond intelligence and discipline to keep seeking the necessary supplication, she keeps on going with her work. Corruption and power (for which money is merely a conduit) are as powerful vices as alcohol; and more lethal in that the harm they inflict is not on the users. This is perhaps where Galvin's moral superiority to the crafty Concannon begins; both are in the thrall of some sinful and debasing addiction, but as a drunk, Galvin is forced to rub his face in the dirt, in the morning-after consequences of his actions. For Concannon and his ilk, no such comeuppance would appear to be waiting in the wings and ultimately, this is probably why Galvin can identify with the comatose woman he's defending (who suffered before slipping into the ether; whose family still suffers). Call it the moral superiority and psychological responsibility of the alcoholic.

Paul Newman is exactly the right person for this role. From a weathered face, beneath the waves of his white hair, those blue eyes shine like beacons; you could calibrate your conscience by them. He is the fallen angel, the great man rediscovering his noblesse oblige while searching in the gutter for a bottle. Of course this is suggestion, below the surface, and it plays a wonderful counterpoint to what we see and hear from the hesitant, often desperate, erratic Galvin. He's smart, but stupid, careening from arrogant righteousness to panicky collapse depending on outside circumstances. A witness disappears, another one arrives and is black - Galvin's fear and disappointment may be in anticipation of racism but also shows a complete lack of concern for the man himself (recall this was just a few years after the busing incidents, and Boston's reputation for racial harmony was as low, or lower, than that of Southern cities).

The only virtue Galvin really has, and the one that ultimately points us back towards that noble figure buried in the visage, is resilience and persistence. He doesn't do it gracefully - he whines, blanches, betrays his hand, loses his temper - but he does it nonetheless. This stubbornness is what I spoke of on Sunday, eulogizing the great Newman, when I noted the exception of roles like The Verdict and The Hustler, in which the actor plays a loser instead of the cool, grinning rebel, but pointed out the consistency of his forward momentum: "Newman pushes and pushes, stubbornness in full throttle, redeeming himself through pain and hard work." I overstated the extent to which these characters remain as reticent as Butch or Luke - there are cracks all over Galvin's facade - but I maintain that there is an emotional restraint on display, however tenuous. When Galvin discovers that he has been betrayed by Laura and she calls him on the phone, he leans forward in the chair - loosing an evocative crackle in the wood - but holds himself back. The phone keeps ringing, and he doesn't move. Newman's charm and cheer was often affirmative, but it was also underpinned by an incipient stoicism. He knew how to say "no," or more appropriately how to shake his head and refuse, or more appropriately yet how to sit, unmoving, tense, keeping himself in check. This is the mark of the truly (nobly, foolishly) stubborn.

October begins with this film in response to Paul Newman's recent passing, but it is appropriate in another regard. I have chosen to dedicate the final two and half weeks of October, and the first four days of November, to a focus on films which deal with power, the public, and their intersection (both classic political dramas and current-events documentaries). The Verdict doesn't quite fit into that narrow criteria, but it does represent a note on which to harmonize in preparation. Galvin's final speech to the jury poses an existential challenge: they are the law, the power is in their hands, all they have to do is take it. If they decide to have faith in justice, justice will come to pass.

Visually and thematically, The Verdict does not belong to the early eighties (this is not the world of "Morning in America" or even its grittier underbelly) but to the fallout from Vietnam and Watergate, America's hesitant bicentennial malaise. The diseased are not the blighted poor but the working-class, perpetually victimized by an elite that has grown immune to its own virus, to the point where it doesn't even realize it's sick. And if this was the nation's diagnosis 30 years ago, in the wake of the financial crisis it would appear that the remission - if there was one - is over. Kevin Doneighy, brother-in-law to the comatose woman, and the client that engages Galvin is horrified when Galvin tells him they're going to trial. His response? It's worth closing with:

"You guys... you guys are all the same! The doctors at the hospital, you... it's always 'what I'm going to do for you.' And then you screw up, and it's, 'Ah, we did the best that we could, I'm dreadfully sorry.' And people like us live with your mistakes the rest of our lives."

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