by Phyllis Deutsch
Cut, no. 28, April 1983, p. 11
There's a lot wrong with THE VERDICT, the latest Paul Newman vehicle that (according to many critics) assures him an academy award next spring. The movie concerns a malpractice case. Two eminent physicians at the well respected St. Catherine's Hospital in Boston have apparently incorrectly administered anesthetic to a pregnant woman whose brain died as a result — leaving her a vegetable. St. Catherine's is a Catholic hospital, and the archdiocese wants the incident hushed up. The victim's sister applies to Frank Galvin (Newman), a hard-drinking, ambulance-chasing attorney, to take the case. Galvin is also an ex-liberal who lost his faith after being jailed unfairly on a jury-tampering charge. Frank the Faithless senses a shot at redemption. He decides, against the wishes of his clients, to try the case in court rather than accept a fat insurance payoff from the defendant.
Galvin is a fine zealot but a lousy lawyer. The defendants pay off his best witness. He forgets to tell his clients that he's decided to take their case to court. He lies continually in his single-minded quest for truth. He's inept at jury selection. He alienates potential witnesses by screaming at them and disbelieves the ones he manages to obtain. Abrasive and insensitive, Galvin treats everyone with contempt except his good-guy sidekick, Mickey (Jack Warden). He's not a lawyer — or a man — anyone could like, much less trust, but he's the holiday season hero. What's going on?
Clearly, the white-knight-against-the-system formula retains its mass appeal. But it's a strain to keep the formula intact in this film because the hero is in turn brash, self-serving, and childish (Galvin is given to tantrums when things don't go his way). To make their myth work, director Sidney Lumet and scriptwriter David Mamet have a foolproof plan. They play their dubious Christ off against a cast of characters considerably worse than he is. In a world that stinks from top to bottom, Galvin comes off smelling like a rose.
At the top, the ruling class fares miserably. The doctors, lawyers, and priests couldn't be sleazier. Milo O'Shea as a corrupt judge is usually eating something drippy (fried eggs, thick soup). James Mason as the defendant attorney Conccannon oozes condescension, never loses his cool, and is served tea by a black man. Both O'Shea and Mason have foreign accents; in fact, all major players in the film have accents. Except Newman, of course, who therefore comes across as the only real American in the crowd. Indeed, it seems he is the only real man in Boston. His upper-crust opposition is feminized by accent, appearance, and mannerism. This is especially evident in the depiction of men of the cloth: a couple of altar boys look like fresh-faced young girls. But Galvin, gravel-voiced and abrupt, is a man for all seasons.
The film goes still further in its struggle to keep the white knight on his charger. While Galvin beats the upper class by dint of greater virility, he gets the dispossessed — blacks, working class people, women — on the strength of his own considerable credentials. He's white, good looking, well educated, male. He's not rich anymore, but he sure used to be. This little twist signals the hypocrisy at the movie's core. The film's attitude toward the people it purports to help is a queasy mixture of contempt and misapprehension. In THE VERDICT, the good guys are just as awful as the bad guys.
There is one black person in the film: a doctor who has come to testify for Galvin. When Conccannon hears that Galvin's only witness is a black man, he snickers and tells assorted sycophants to "get a black attorney to sit at our table." But the side of right is just as wrong. Mickey refers to the black man as a "witch doctor" because, it seems, he got his degree at a women's college and works on staff there. Calvin concurs and sets out to find a more "credible" witness. To make matters worse, the script saddles the black doctor with an additional liability: he has testified at twenty-seven negligence trials. At best, then, the black doctor is a well-meaning but dubious witness. At worst, he's out to make a buck like everyone else.
The working-class characters don't shine either, although the really fine acting in these roles gives the film its few moments of authenticity. Kevin, the victim’s brother-in-law, is being transferred to Arizona by his company. He hired Galvin simply to mediate the settlement payoff. When he learns that Galvin turned down the money in favor of a trial, he's furious. It's an interesting scene. Kevin's rage leads to punching Galvin, who, penitent, apologizes for "not informing" Kevin of the change and promises the client he'll win the case. Kevin is shot in close up here and looks ominously large. (In fact, Newman is frequently dwarfed by buildings and characters — clearly all the world is out to get him!) Kevin's plaid lumber jacket and heavy shoes are clumsy beside Galvin's well-tailored suit. The workingman's rage is terrifying compared to Galvin's self-control. Kevin becomes a materialistic brute, incapable of understanding Galvin's quixotic quest for justice. This is despite the fact that Kevin and his wife have spent two years at the comatose woman's bedside, shedding real tears, waiting for her to awaken. The insurance payoff was their only way out of an interminable nightmare.
Women also get theirs. Galvin has a girlfriend, Laura (Charlotte Rampling), whom he picks up at a bar after delivering some profundities. ("The weak," he explains, "need somebody to protect them.") Laura says little, broods a lot, and sleeps with Galvin. She is so thin that she's a good advertisement for the U.S. soaring anorexia rate. Late in the film we learn that she is a spy for the other side.
When Galvin discovers her betrayal, he punches her (hard) in the mouth. "Let him alone," she says, obviously feeling she got what she deserved. In fact, she was going to confess to Galvin before the KO and tries to talk to him several times after that. But he has decided he will never speak to her again. In the last shot of Laura, she lays on her bed, awash in tears and liquor, a phone receiver at her breast. Galvin, on the receiving end of the call, watches the ringing phone and looks very vindicated. Apparently, real men not only hit women these days, they also don't accept apologies.
As Laura's decline suggests, when women aren't tempting and betraying men, they are absolutely helpless. Laura is not going to pull herself together and punch Galvin back. In fact, semi-comatose on the bed, she recalls Debra Ann Kay, the negligence victim who will spend the rest of her life curled up in a fetal position. Galvin was all Debra Ann had in the way of defense, and this is what he said of her:
We are all each other's keepers, but the paternalistic blitz in this line, and in the film, keeps us all safely in our places. The "weak" don't need the Galvins of this world to fight for them. They can fight for themselves and should be encouraged to do so, every minute of every day. Fairy tales, even inconsistent ones like this, are bad for everybody.
Says Mickey to Galvin of the other side, "How do you think they wound up with all that money? From doing good?" Meanwhile, Lumet and company are laughing all the way to the bank.