Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is an attorney who has built the reputation of being an ambulance chaser – an American idiom for a lawyer of inferior rank or talent, and, more specifically, an attorney who specializes in representing victims of traffic accidents. But when Frank sees the opportunity to redeem himself by representing a client who was involved in a case involving a Doctor’s negligence, there’s no amount of money that can force Frank to discharge himself from going to trial. Frank is on a quest to re-claim what was once a significant calling for him as a lawyer by going out for justice. The Verdict, written by David Mamet and Directed by Sidney Lumet, is a classic theatrical example that implements an omniscient point-of-view with dramatic irony.
The opening sequence plays out on a subtle zoom with chiaroscuro, dark shadow lighting on Frank in the foreground, inside of a bar, playing with a pinball machine and taking swigs of beer from a mug. Frank, the subject of the shot, is lit darkly, but the window he stands next to, blocks him in and acts as a portal to outdoor scenery with bright sunlight and greenery in the background. This opening shot is an allegory for Frank’s mental state. When he gets offered a case by his law partner Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden), to make vast sums of money and get his life back in order, he gets confronted for his alcoholism. Frank has a drinking problem and his choice of poison is Bushmills Irish Whiskey.
Frank has built the reputation of avoiding going to trial and seeking settlements throughout his carrer as a prosecuting attorney. On this current case he’s been proposed, Frank has been made an offer for $210,000 to back-off and not go to trial. He visits the young woman at the hospital who lays in a vegetative state as he suspects she was a victim of a medical malpractice and takes snapshot photographs of her as she lays in critical condition. He refuses to take the money because he’s tired of being known as a rich ambulance chaser. Frank is worn-out and fatigued from an exhausting life as a lawyer, but he knows going to trial on this case will give his life great purpose again. Frank believes the doctors killed his client through negligence and he won’t back off the case. Frank is not interested in riches anymore. He wants to do right by standing up for the girl and winning.
“A long road that has no return.” Frank says, in reference to Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling) an attractive woman who oddly sits among a bar occupied by men only. Frank hits on her, only to get shot down. She plays him, on the way out, with a flirtatious remark, suggesting that she needs to be courted before anything can happen between the two. We then meet the defense team consisting of more than a dozen attorneys systemizing and coordinating their case. This is intercut with the two man prosecution team of Frank and Mickey, sitting in their office with two floors of books aligning the walls behind them. When the two of them head to the local watering hole after a long hard day’s work, Frank informs Mickey that he’s trying to get laid, when he sees Laura sitting at the bar again. “I’ll be back at the office.” Mickey said. “Just don’t leave your best work in the sheets.”
In a notable scene, Frank sits beside the polished, suave and sophisticated defense attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason) as they meet with Judge Hoyle (Milo O’Shea), who attempts to explain to the two lawyers that if they find the case complex, what makes them think that the jury will understand the particulars, in order to make the proper verdict? The Judge is baffled by Frank’s refusal of $210k. And when a witness disappears on Frank to prove that his client was improperly nourished while drugged, his request for an extension of the trial is refused by Judge Hoyle’ lack of sympathy for Frank and his disappointment that this case going to trial. The silky-smooth defense lawyer in Ed Concannon systemizes his questioning of an Anesthesiologist as they practice at their law office, while Frank fully believes that there were a group of Doctors who gave his client the wrong anesthetic. Franks is determined to prove that his client was deprived of her health due to the negligence of the of Doctors who treated her.
Frank brings in Dr. Thompson (Joe Seneca), a frail African/American Doctor in his seventies, to testify that their client suffered cardiac arrest, which caused the heart to stop, resulting in brain damage. The Judge interrupts Frank’s questioning in a biased manner for the defense. We learn later from Frank’s questioning of the Anesthesiologist, that, due to the victims underlying condition of anemia, her brain was already receiving less oxygen, which ultimately caused her critical condition. “You never ask a question unless you have the answer to it.” Mickey reminds Frank.
When The Verdict begins, the story is told from an omniscient point-of-view; only the writer knows the thoughts and actions of every character. Characters have things up their sleeve, and their deceptions are unbeknownst to the audience. Gradually, as the plot reveals a major twist, we discover that Frank’s girlfriend Laura, is a spy for the defense team. At this point in the story, this is where dramatic irony is being used; a device in which the audience knows more than the characters they are following. At this point in The Verdict, we know more than Frank and Mickey, they don’t have the slightest clue toward Laura’s true intentions. It is because of this knowledge that the dialogue of characters and their behaviors take on different purposes and intentions. And finally, in the third act, Frank knows. The characters and the audience are on the same page. Three masterful stages of storytelling from the film’s writer, David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), where there is a shift in who knows what, and why. First, the audience is behind, while Laura and the defense are ahead. Then we catch up to Laura and we know her intentions, but now Frank is behind and doesn’t know, so were ahead of Frank, completely modifying our attention toward his spoken words and actions taken. Then when Frank finally knows, it’s a big bang of a dramatic moment and we’re glad he’s caught up with us. Now, we’re just as angry as him, and angry with him. The great reveal of this comes when Frank is standing outside, ‘The God Shot’ from high-above the streets of New York City angles down on him. We don’t hear the dialogue occurring between Frank and Mickey, just the cars whizzing by. But we don’t need to hear the dialogue. We know what’s being said. As Laura waits for him at the bar, Frank slaps her across the face. She takes it. Because she knows she’s guilty. When he slaps her, we feel bad because we see the love in her eyes for him and his internal rage stems from his love for her because of the betrayal. She feels guilty because she knows she did something wrong. The other men surrounding Frank are shocked and appalled but after being hit and bloody, she requests with conviction to leave Frank alone. However, this type of behavior is outrageous in the contemporary era and regardless of who’s at fault, assault and battery is absolutely inexcusable.
Most of the film is photographed with interior shots of contrasting lights and shadows. The director, Sidney Lumet (Serpico) shot a lot of long takes before cutting to close-ups in this slow-burn American courtroom drama about a man seeking to be liberated from his past. There wasn’t a wide variety of color schemes used within the photography of the film and most of the buildings we see were constructed a long time ago. In his book, Making Movies, Sidney Lumet talked about the cinematography by Andrzej Bartowiak (Falling Down, Speed), “One day I brought a beautiful edition of Caravaggio’s paintings to my meeting with Andrzej. I said, ‘Andrzej, there’s the feeling I’m after. There’s something ancient here, something from a long time ago. What is it?’ Andrzej studied the pictures. Then, with his charming Polish accent, he pinpointed it. “it’s chiaroscuro,’ he said. ‘A very strong light source, almost always form the side, not above. And on the other side, no soft fill light, only shadows.’…And that’s what Andrzej carried out in the lighting of the movie.” Said Sidney Lumet.
“There is no justice. The rich win. The poor are powerless. We become tired of them lying. We become victims.” This is just line from the countless lines of profound dialogue written by David Mamet. And the two most memorable shots from the film are an epic long-take wide-shot in the courtroom with a slow zoom in on Frank as he delivers a powerful monologue to the jury, and, when the verdict is released, the camera rapidly lowers from high-above the courtroom on a crane and closes in on Frank as his facial expression reacts to the victory. The Verdict was Nominated in several categories at the Academy Awards in 1983, including Best Picture. Paul Newman was nominated for Best Actor in an amazing performance filled with depth about a down-and-out lawyer who’s hollowed and weakened but seeking a chance at redeeming his career. Sidney Lumet was nominated for Best Director, as well as David Mamet for Best Adapted Screenplay.