Friday, August 19, 2016

They Don't Make Them Like That Anymore: 'The Verdict'


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One of the great things about streaming platforms is how often they are able to float old titles to the surface and convince viewers to take a chance on them. Maybe you’ve just finished The Get Down or need a break from Bojack Horseman‘s unrelenting gloom; suddenly, here’s a movie from 1982 that has always seemed intriguing, and all you have to do is click.
The thing about The Verdict, the 1982 legal drama from illustrious director Sidney Lumet, is that its title is both uselessly vague and yet powerfully authoritative. It’s not just legal drama, it is very possibly the legal drama. Paul Newman stars as attorney Frank Galvin, an ambulance-chaser with a drinking problem who’s about one bad case away from not even having a career. He’s handed a medical malpractice case and, as you might have expected, finds himself inspired to not simply accept the lucrative settlement being offered, but instead to take those bastards — in this case, the hospital and the Catholic archdiocese behind it — to court. (Which, nothing against the verdict, but it makes me want to give Erin Brockovich even more credit for being the rare legal drama to turn acceptance of a settlement into a dramatic triumph.) With the judge (Milo O’Shea) against him, the opposing attorney (James Mason) infinitely better funded, and some kind of femme fatale (Charlotte Rampling) in his midst, Frank has to scrap his way to winning the case.
If this feels familiar, it’s because almost every legal drama that followed The Verdict followed in its footsteps. John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (the film version of which was directed by no less a luminary than Francis Ford Coppola) copied it almost exactly. But there’s something about the way a Sidney Lumet movie looks and the way a Paul Newman performances moves that is essentially irreplaceable. Check out the scene where Newman delivers his closing arguments. The vast, cavernous courtroom that dwarfs everyone; that drawfs a movie star as big as even Paul Newman.

Sidney Lumet was an unbelievably prolific director, having made over 50 films over the course of his career. His best ones stand among the best films ever made: 12 Angry Men (his FIRST movie!), The PawnbrokerDog Day AfternoonNetwork. Depending on how you feel about Running on Empty or Before the Devil Knows You’re DeadThe Verdict stands as Lumet’s last all-time great. And it’s a masterwork of simplicity. It’s a film that knows who its stars are and how to deploy him. Watch an old dog like James Mason prep a witness. Or Newman and Milo O’Shea slug it out in the judge’s chambers. (Somehow half the people in this movie have vaguely Irish accents. I know it’s Boston, but everyone was assimilated by 1982, weren’t they?)

Lumet’s old-school mentality does also have its drawbacks. Even in 1982, it was normal for a male protagonist to be able to strike a woman without it tarnishing his character. Which is a real shame, because Rampling gives a great performance, all quiet, sultry glances, and it’s a shame to see it all shake out with a betrayal and an act of man-on-woman violence. However un-jarring that was to see in 1982, it’s unavoidably jarring now. (Of course, the #1 movie in America currently features Batman punching Harley Quinn in the face, so maybe I’m overstating out progress as a species.)
As for Newman, The Verdict marked his sixth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and the last time he would lose (to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi) before winning four years later for The Color of Money. Watching the performance in that context, there’s a weariness that makes sense for the actor, in a way you wouldn’t think would match Newman’s usual persona. It’s one of his great performances in a movie that just might hit the spot.

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