Harsh Texture

The Verdict

A down on his luck lawyer takes on the Catholic Church and their powerful attorney over medical malpractice

In 1982 you didn’t have to go to dystopian Australia to find a square jawed hero who learned to live again while pursuing a suicidal mission for greedy victims. Instead of mutant scavengers The Verdict gives the Catholic Church. Instead of the weak greedy hoarders, its the working class family of a woman left brain dead after negligence while delivering her baby.

The Verdict certainly hasn’t remained in pop culture like the Road Warrior. It’s remembered primarily as one of the few films in the courtroom genre who try to present a realistic view of the process of bringing a case through trial. Inbetween every scene I can hear Jimmy Stewart from Anatomy of a Murder providing running commentary for the implications of each twist and turn. I heard an anecdote from a lawyer that the central problem with film and TV depictions of the law is the courtroom is the last resort, every actor in the judicial system tries everything in their power to avoid a case reaching that stage. So it is in the Verdict. The church and the hospital are quite content to pay a large sum to avoid press coverage. The judge resents the formality of the trial and throws away any notion of partiality and acts in collusion with the defense.  

Hangdog defense attourney Galvin (Paul Newman) was prepared to accept the money, far more than he expected to receive on a first bid, but he visits his comatose client and finds religion at her bedside. He rejects the offer without consulting the woman’s family and pushes for a trial, explicitly seeking “justice”. Its the perhaps the most cringe worthy portion of the film. Up to that point only Newman’s blue eyes provided any hint that his Galvin had a soul let alone scruples.  

Besides the civil court is not a place for “justice”. The best outcome here is a small knock on the reputation of the powerful Catholic Church. Perhaps a black eye on the particular doctors, but nothing that will cause their textbooks to go out of print. As James Mason’s Concannon aptly puts it, winning is everything once in trial.

In 1982 Paul Newman and James Mason were both criminally Oscar-less, both men still wanted it and bring the full breadth of their talents to their respective roles. For Newman Frank Galvin is just the latest in a long line of his trademark losers. There’s little of the charm of Fast Eddie, Luke, Reggie Dunlop, or Butch Cassidy here. Frank Galvin is closer to the bottom, all of the talent and charm wrung away by decades of booze and bad luck (who’s to say which came first?). Galvin is never presented with any knack for his profession. He makes fundamental mistakes when questioning witnesses and his opening statement nearly bores the jury to sleep. Eventually the case reads more like an aberration than a life altering event. Galvin’s battle isn’t with the courtroom, its with the bottle. If he wins the case then he can perhaps delay the inevitable for a year or two longer. If he loses he won’t be much worse off.  

Concannon is every bit Galvin’s opposite. His office shows the spoils of a life of success. White suited wait staff, a cadre of young lawyers awaiting every proclamation. A fireplace adorned with friezes--a tip off to the structure of the larger film as a drama in the mould of classical Greek Theater. There’s even a Greek chorus of sorts in the form of the conversations among the Roman Catholic higher ups. They pop up in between acts to remind the audience that his is a game of dollars and cents as much more than a morality play.

Mason also gets perhaps the best bit of acting in the film on discovery that Galvin’s medical expert is not just under credentialed, but black. He receives the news from a visibly giddy disciple. Concannon immediately realizes the gravity of the situation, and Mason hardens: “Let me tell you how to handle a black…” and moves to protect his hand by importing a black lawyer to sit at the table with him. All this adds to an implicit but finely wrought invective against Affirmative Action that occupies the center of the film. Given screenwriter Mamet’s conservative views, this may be a primary objective of the picture.

Syndey Lumet films The Verdict on the precipice of a never ending winter. The Boston streets sync up well to Frank Galvin’s fortunes. In the beginning it’s frozen over, mounds of snow packed into rough ice. When he believes he can win easily against the powerful church, and a beautiful woman appears in his life, the ice melts but is replaced by a drizzle sheen. When the depth of his challenge, and hopelessness of his position become obvious, the snow begins anew.

All the buildings here are in shades of beige. The color pallet never warms beyond a peach wall or shock of ginger hair.

Published: May 13, 2018, 3:22 p.m.
Updated: June 3, 2018, 4 p.m.