Speaking of the good, old-fashioned star power of Paul Newman, The Hustler and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were not the only films to receive an oscar nomination as the result of his charisma. There’s also The Verdict, a 1982 best picture nominee that would probably be forgotten if not for Paul Newman’s performance. However, since Paul Newman did play the lead role in The Verdict and he did give an amazing lead performance, The Verdict was nominated for best picture and, 33 years later, it ended up on TCM where I just watched it.
That’s the power of good acting.
Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, a Boston-based attorney. At one time, Frank was a lawyer at an elite firm. But he has since fallen on hard times. Now, he’s the type of attorney who crashes funerals and hands out his card. He spends his spare time at his favorite bar, playing pinball and telling long jokes while stumbling about in a drunken haze. In many ways, Frank represents everything that people hate about personal injury attorneys but, since he’s played by Paul Newman, you know that he’s going to turn out to be a good guy.
Frank only has one friend left in the world, his former mentor Mickey (Jack Warden). Looking to help Frank out, Mickey sends Frank a medical malpractice suit. A woman at a Catholic Hospital was given an anesthetic during child birth that has led to her now being brain dead. Both the woman’s family and the Archdiocese are looking for a settlement. The family needs the money to pay for her medical care. The Archdiocese just wants the case to go away. All Frank has to do is accept whatever settlement deal is offered…
However, something has changed for Frank. He’s visited the comatose woman and, looking at her trapped in a vegetative state, he’s decided that the hospital needs to be held responsible for its mistake. He rejects the settlement and takes the case to court, looking for both justice for the victim and redemption for himself.
That’s easier said than done, of course. The Archdiocese has hired Ed Concannon (James Mason, perfectly cast), one of the best and most powerful attorneys in Boston. Ed has a huge legal team working on the case. Frank has Mickey. As well, the Judge (Milo O’Shea) makes little effort to hide his contempt for Frank.
Probably the only bright spot in Frank’s life is that he’s met a woman. Laura (Charlotte Rampling) meets him in a bar and soon, they’re lovers and Frank is confiding in her about the case. What he doesn’t suspect is that Laura herself is a spy, hired by Concannon.
It looks like all is lost but then Frank discovers that there is one nurse (Lindsay Crouse) who might be willing to tell the truth about what happened at the hospital…
In many ways, The Verdict is a predictable film. From the minute we first meet him, we know that Frank is going to be redeemed. From the minutes that we hear about the case, we know who we’re supposed to root for and who we’re supposed to hiss. Just about every courtroom cliché is present, right down to a surprise witness or two…
But no matter! The Verdict may be predictable but it works. As he proved with 12 Angry Men, Director Sidney Lumet knew how to make legal deliberations compelling and the entire film is full of small but memorable details that elevate it above its simplistic storyline. As a director, Lumet gets good performances from his cast and, as a result, this is a film where the hero is flawed and the antagonists aren’t necessarily evil. Even the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston (who, in most films, would have been a cardboard villain) is given a scene where he’s allowed to show some humanity.
And, of course, Paul Newman is great in the role of Frank. When we first meet Frank, he looks and sounds terrible. Indeed, it’s strange to see Paul Newman playing a character who is essentially such a loser. (Even Eddie Felson in The Hustler had an appealing swagger about him.) It’s during the scenes where Frank considers the woman in a coma that Newman starts to reveal that there’s more to Frank than what’s on the rough surface. By the end of the film, Frank may be a hero but Newman doesn’t play him as such. He’s still has that alcoholic rasp in his voice and his eyes still betray hints of insecurity and a fear that, at any minute, he’s going to screw up and mess everything up. It’s a great performance, one for which Newman received a nomination for best actor.
Speaking of star power, Bruce Willis also shows up in The Verdict. He’s an extra who appears as an observer in the courtroom. He’s sitting a few rows behind Paul Newman. (He’s also sitting beside Tobin Bell, the Jigsaw Killer from the Saw films). It’s probably easiest to spot Willis towards the end of the film, when the verdict is read. Bruce breaks out into a huge grin and almost looks like he’s about to start clapping. Bruce only gets about 10 second of screen time but he acts the Hell out of them!
Thanks to Paul Newman, The Verdict is a memorable and entertaining film. Be sure to watch it the next time it shows up on TCM.