The Verdict (1982)

Directed by Sidney Lumet

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In The Verdict, Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, a disgraced lawyer who determines his latest case to be his one shot at redemption.  The case comes from the sister of woman who has been in a vegetative state for years due to the administration of the wrong kind of anesthesia from a renowned doctor in the Boston area, and at first it seems like Frank has a strong case though his intention is to settle out of court for an easy payout.

The idea of avoiding a trial, while presented as the easy way out for Frank, does make some sense, at least in the eyes of the people around him.  Frank’s pal Mickey (Jack Warden), who gave him the case, is flabbergasted that Frank would turn down a $210,000 offer, of which $70,000 would be for himself, from the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston who owns the hospital.

It’s made very clear from the start that, were Frank to pursue a trial, he would be up against a formidable foe, even if he has strong evidence for his case.  It’s also at this point that the institution of the church, encouraging Frank to avoid a trial because people need to trust the church, begins to feel like a titanic force like the White House in All The President’s Men or the church again in 2015’s Spotlight.

Without consulting his clients, the sister of the woman in the coma and her husband, Frank turns down the settlement offer.  It’s a moment of personal triumph for him as he commits to doing what he sees is the right thing and to turning his life and career around.  Of course, when his clients find out, they are livid because Frank never consulted them.  It hit me in that moment that I didn’t even think about how Frank never talked to them about the offer, and the point seems to be that we never consider that side of the story just as Frank seemed not to consider it.  Even as he puts himself back together, he is still acting selfishly without realizing it.

As the trial begins, Frank’s case begins to fall apart due to his own negligence, having not researched all the information available and the experience of the witnesses brought up by the defense.  The biggest blow, however, is when Frank’s star witness, a doctor determined to expose the mistake that caused this situation, just seems to up and disappear.  Frank desperately searches for him, learning only that the man is supposedly on vacation somewhere tropical.  From what we learn about the defense, however, they could have done something more drastic to keep this witness out of the court.

The reason the defense knew about this witness, we learn, is because of Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling), a woman who takes the role of Frank’s love interest throughout the first two acts of the story.  She is a suspicious character from the start and not just because of these icy, powerful eyes…

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And shit man, that image is from the scene in which she and Frank first get to know each other, meant to be a scene of warmth between them.  Beyond the fact that Rampling simply looks chilling throughout the film, she also seems too good to be true.  She shows up in a bar Frank frequents, one in which there are hardly any other women present.  The way Laura simply appears out of nowhere might feel typical in a movie, where “meet cutes” seem to happen anywhere and everywhere (‘hey we’re the only two people of opposite gender in the same Nielsen demographic on this bus let’s fall in love and get married in act 3’), but in The Verdict she is the one shining light in Frank’s life.  When she comes over to his house and sees the framed photo of his ex-wife (who left him when his career collapsed), she smiles and undresses herself.  That’s not how most people would react.

Another reason to suspect Laura: She only ever seems to talk to Frank, almost like a ghost that no one can see.  Here, take a look at this and tell me it’s not sinister:

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Or these two shots back to back…

Notice how, when the camera looks over Frank’s shoulder, there is still detail in his shadows, but when we look over Laura’s shoulder at Frank, she is completely dark, a silhouette.  Another interesting detail is, well first how far apart they are, and second how Frank is literally boxed in by the doorframe.  He’s stuck.  In the context of the story he has just come home fresh off failing to track down his star witness, so he’s stuck in his case, but he doesn’t realize that Laura is the reason he’s stuck.

See, we later learn that Laura is working for the defense.  She’s a lawyer looking for an easy paycheck, and Ed Concannon (James Mason), the opposing lawyer, hired her to spy on Frank.  It is safe to assume that she put in word about Frank’s star witness and let the defense go to work making him disappear.

Not long after this reveal, Frank soon learns about Laura’s betrayal as well.  Frank tracks down a nurse that left the hospital following the incident which has necessitated this lawsuit, and before Laura can find out any meaningful information to give to the defense about this witness, Mickey discovers her truth and warns Frank.

In a striking (pun not intended but maybe it was) moment, Frank confronts Laura by striking her across the face.  It’s a brutal reminder that Frank is still a bit of a mess.  Not only does he remain a frustrated alcoholic, but he’s not a great lawyer, he’s selfish, and apparently he can be violent.

With Laura out of the picture, Frank is able to defeat the defense when he brings his new star witness up to the stand where she breaks down, calling the doctor on duty a liar.  The detail over which they obsess is whether or not the patient ate 1 hour or 9 hours before having the anesthesia administered.  Had the doctor known it was 1 hour, then he wouldn’t have given her this anesthesia because it could result in her vomiting and obstructing her airflow, which it did.  The defense claims that they were told that the patient ate 9 hours before, but the nurse on the stand says it was 1 hour, and she was forced to change it to 9 or risk being fired.

After this stunning moment (well, stunning if you were the jury, not so stunning if you’ve seen a courtroom drama before), the judge, upon an objection by the defense, strikes the nurse’s testimony from the record due to her testimony going off topic (yet still responding to the questions asked of her).  Even so, the jury awards the plaintiff and Frank the victory.

We’re never told how much Frank won for his clients, but it’s not important.  The point is that he fought and he won, and in doing so he redeemed himself.  In the original draft of the story, screenwriter David Mamet has said that he didn’t want to reveal the actual verdict, signifying just how much the focus is on Frank’s character growth more than the result of that growth.  The most important thing for Frank was choosing to get better, and he did.

The film ends with Frank sitting at his desk, alone.  He sips coffee now instead of alcohol, and he waits out the incessant ringing of his phone, knowing that Laura is on the other end.  We see her drinking and unable to get out of bed.  She’s a mess, in her own personal hell like Frank once was.  The phone keeps ringing when the story ends, and thus we’re left with a feeling of Frank’s empowerment but also a feeling of sadness.

So even though this is a film about redemption, there is still a lot of pain left over.  The star witness, the nurse, is a heroic character because we root so hard for her to shut up the annoying Ed Concannon and the defense, yet we last see her in the film running out of the courtroom crying.  Then you have the clients, the young couple who looks somewhere between vibrant youth and aging adulthood mostly like from the stress of the lawsuit and it’s stubborn, continued existence, and even if they win they’re still haunted by the events that left their sister/sister-in-law in a permanent coma.  And then, finally, you have the actual patient who will never get better.  She is like the dead girl at the heart of so many murder/detective movies and stories, around which the story is based but who is doomed from the beginning (The Night OfTwin PeaksMaking a MurdererSerial, etc.).

Yes Frank redeemed himself, and yes we root for him to do so, but at the end of the day he’s still capitalizing on someone else’s pain, and he had to put other people (his clients) through more pain to get there.  If a lawyer’s duty is to best represent his client, then Frank should have taken the settlement offer, but he was only thinking of himself when he turned it down.

A few stylistic notes… this entire film features a very bleak, occasionally pastel color scheme, focusing on browns, blacks and something like white.  Frank’s own hair is so silver, and Laura’s is lit to feel more silver than brown.  Having been recently reading Sidney Lumet’s “Making Movies,” in which he discusses a lot of these choices, including the progression of shooting style within his films, I expected the movie to gain color as it went along, but it never does.  It’s just as stark and faded in the end as it is in the beginning, hinting that despite Frank’s growth, nothing has really changed.  He lives in the same world where sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t.  This victory might as well be the peak of the graph of a sine curve just as his bottoming out was the bottom of the same graph.  One day you’re up, the next you’re down and vice versa.

Another thing is the camera angles.  So often the camera is either above or below Frank, rarely at eye level.  There didn’t seem to be a consistent change from one angle to the next, instead it fluctuated back and forth…

Typically a low angle shot, like the one in the right hand corner, reflects a position of power for the character, and a high angle shot, like the one in the upper right corner, puts the character in a powerless position, at the whim of some other force.  In the former, Frank has the floor to argue his side of the case with confidence, and in the latter he looks up helplessly at the judge who, at the time, reigns his courtroom with a heavy fist, limiting Frank’s questioning of his witness.

In the shot in the lower left hand corner, though, Frank is filmed from a low angle, but this is one of his lowest moments in the film.  The camera isn’t beneath him to show his power, but instead it feels heavy, like the camera is sinking away from him.

The Verdict, between the nature of the story the ways I choose to read into the mise en scene and shot types, feels like a momentous story in which very little happens.  As one of the possible witnesses, a nurse, tells Frank, ‘you are all the same,’ meaning lawyers.  She rips into him from a place of visible pain, arguing that lawyers on both sides of the law are greedy and devoid of morals, and that’s something a lot of people believe.  I mean, Frank gets into this for the money before having a change of heart, but his own personal growth exists within a story world where such growth feels impermanent.  Maybe this victory will allow Frank to receive more and bigger offers, but maybe he’ll represent people with less of a firm morale stance than his clients in this particular case.  A victory within this story means so much for Frank and the client and for us.  The defense is made to look so villainous that I was cheering my ass off for them to get their comeuppance.  But a victory in the world of law simply means winning, and sometimes winning disregards the real issue at hand.  In this case, the woman whose coma resulted in this whole story is still in a coma.

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