Week 22 – Massachusetts
Some of you — at least those who know me personally — may be aware that, for several years, up until May of this year when I embarked on a new career as Mr. Mom/net know-it-all, I was a reporter for The News of Cumberland County. As a writer for The News, a small daily newspaper in South Jersey, I spent many hours inside of courtrooms covering legal proceedings of all types, including a number of high-profile trials.
I learned a lot as a courtroom news reporter; however, while the first-hand education of the legal system was probably beneficial to me as a journalist, it kind of ruined my ability to watch television shows like Boston Legal and other courtroom dramas without constantly shouting at the screen every time the action deviates into the realm of the unreal. I could probably make a whole list of legal drama tropes: the surprise witness who bursts into the courtroom at the end of the trial, the “smoking gun” which turns the tide of the case, the witness who takes the stand only to be berated until he or she bursts into tears.
The truth is, of course, that the fine details of most trials — all of the witness testimony and other evidence — are settled and discussed between the plaintiff and defense long before a jury is picked. The intense scenes of witnesses being examined and cross-examined? It happens, although lawyers are pretty restricted when it comes to how they question witnesses — much more than it would appear on television and in the movies. Really, for anyone who’s not a juror, the biggest surprise in a trial doesn’t come until the end when a verdict is announced.
Sometimes, jurors can’t make up their mind and there is no verdict, resulting in a mistrial. If that happens, the whole trial starts over again. In the criminal justice system, there are reruns — and this happens quite frequently.
In real life, the criminal justice system can be pretty dull. So how do you make a courtroom drama exciting and thrilling without compromising realism? The key is to focus on the players and not the process. The best movies about the legal system are character studies first and foremost and The Verdict is no exception.
Paul Newman stars in The Verdict as Frank Galvin, a washed-up Boston lawyer whose career is on the skids as a result of being accused of jury tampering — he was found innocent, but the damage to his career could not be undone. The once-promising attorney is reduced to ambulance chasing and showing up unannounced at funerals soliciting his services to grieving families. If it wasn’t enough that his career was in the toilet, Galvin has a severe alcohol addiction which he picked up after splitting up with his wife. Now, Galvin spends countless hours at a local pub playing pinball, drinking, and carousing.
If you haven’t gotten the picture by now, Galvin is an extremely unlikeable character. Still, due in part to Newman’s stellar performance, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. When the movie begins, Galvin is a complete mess. In one scene, he clumsily trashes his office after a night of drinking. Between moments where he’s a sloppy mess and watching him try and hold himself together long enough to interact civilly with other people … it’s just pathetic.
The plot of the movie is spelled out pretty clearly in its tag line, “Frank Galvin has one last chance at a big case.” The “big case” is a malpractice suit involving a pregnant woman who went into a coma as a result of being given the wrong anesthetic during what is described as a fairly routine medical procedure. (I assume the operation was a C-section, although I’m not sure the movie states that specifically.)
The hospital where the incident takes place is a Catholic facility run by the Archdiocese of Boston, which proposes settling the case out of court for $250,000. Galvin would receive 1/3 percent of that amount. He is encouraged by colleagues and the presiding judge to accept the settlement, but refuses, seeing this case as an opportunity to redeem himself — and collect an even bigger payout. Should the case go to trial and Galvin prevail, there would be no limit on the amount of money the jury would be permitted to award.
James Mason (of Kubrick’s Lolita) plays the attorney representing the Archdiocese of Boston. His character, Ed Concannon, has earned the nickname “The Prince of Darkness” for his courtroom demeanor, as if the “redemption” angle the movie takes regarding Galvin’s character wasn’t any more obvious. Concannon is one bad mother. He has at least a dozen lawyers working for him, all of which are involved in the case.
Galvin, who is clearly outmatched, does have two advantages.
Second, and more importantly, a doctor at the Catholic hospital is willing to testify against his co-workers that they were negligent by improperly sedating the victim in the case. This doctor is the kind of witness Galvin could only dream of having on the stand, as medical professionals usually discourage other members of the profession from speaking out against their colleagues. If Galvin had any second thoughts about turning down the settlement before, with this star witness now in his corner, those thoughts are long gone.
Of course, any hope that Galvin might win the case falls apart in the film’s third act. That should have been expected.
Right before the trial starts, Galvin’s key witness becomes suddenly and mysteriously “unavailable.” If that isn’t bad enough, the d-bag of a judge assigned to the case refuses to give Galvin an extension to rethink his strategy for the trail.
Then, without spoiling the plot too badly, Laura turns out not to be the person she seems. No … she’s not a vampire, and, no … she’s not a dude — but that’s all I’m going to say.
At this point, Galvin has no choice but to proceed with the trial. He lucks out by securing both an expert witness and a nurse willing to testify for his side of the case in place of the absent doctor, but — of course — he once again runs up against a wall. To say any more at this point would definitely spoil the ending of the movie, with the obvious question being “Does he win the case?” You really think I’m going to answer that?
I’ll say only this: by the time it gets to that point in the film were the jury has returned with a verdict, it was not a foregone conclusion in my mind whether Galvin was going to win or lose the case. Fun fact: Mamet’s original script did not answer that question. Fortunately, the film, in its completed form, does — which was a relief to me. Considering the movie’s title is The Verdict, it would have been a bitter pill to swallow had the film ended without … you know … a verdict. Then again, had the film ended on an ambiguous note, it would have possibly cause me to rethink the meaning of the title. What is the “verdict” that the title refers to? Is it referring to the outcome of the trial or something more cerebral? Perhaps it’s Galvin who’s being judged. By who? Himself, maybe.
By the end of the film, Galvin can hold his head high and I get the impression that he has clearly gained something from the experience he’s been through. If anything, Galvin gained sobriety and a sense of purpose. His bottle of whiskey has been replaced with a cup of coffee and his office is neat and organized. But at what cost has Galvin arrived at this newfound sense of self-satisfaction? He dragged the family of the victim through a long, drawn-out trial – a family that would have been happy to have taken the settlement but, instead, were pushed by Galvin into a very disadvantageous situation.
Galvin is a complex character. Then again, I imagine the life of a lawyer must be complicated, constantly having to dance the line between sincerity and secrecy — having to balance self-satisfaction with the welfare of one’s client.
Newman is at his best in The Verdict, as are his supporting cast. Mamet’s script is awesome, as to be expected from a master of the craft.
As for the direction, Sidney Lumet — whose first big success was also a courtroom drama (12 Angry Men) — the veteran filmmaker gives his actors and actresses lots of room to work their stuff but, at the same time, throws in all sorts of subtle touches. One of my favorite shots happens in a scene where Galvin is leaving the courthouse and is stopped by the family of the victim, who he has not been keeping up-to-date on the case. Before being accosted, Galvin manages to get one arm in the sleeve of his dark blazer and — as a result — plays the whole scene with his coat half-on and half-off. With a white shirt on underneath, his body is half-light and half-dark. It’s classic duality imagery. You could try and argue to me that Lumet or whomever composed the shot didn’t intend for it to take on that meaning, but I’d argue you’re wrong. Lumet also plays a lot with shadows and low camera angles when filming in the courthouse, giving the building this almost omnipotent presence.
I’ve read some reviews that state The Verdict may be too realistic and not sensationalistic enough for the average viewer, but that’s a condescending attitude. Nowadays, the public has so much access to the legal system that I think most people have a general idea of how trials are conducted. Most people know the lingo. Even without resorting to typical courtroom drama cliches, The Verdict manages to be a hell of a thriller.
If you work in law, hopefully you’ve seen this movie. I’d wager that most older attorneys have. If you’re new to the profession and have not seen it, see it. It’s an incredible film … should be required viewing. For young attorneys, Galvin’s story is a cautionary tale that would be wise to heed.
As a postscript, The Verdict was nominated for Best Picture in 1983 as well as Best Adapted Screenplay. Newman was nominated for Best Actor. Mason was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Lumet was nominated for Best Director. It won no awards. Gandhi shut it out in most categories, except for Screenplay (which went to Missing) and Supporting Actor (which went to … Louis Gossett Jr. for An Officer and a Gentleman. Blecch!) Moral of the story: “Inspirational” films win Oscars. Go Hoosiers!
Next Week: Out of my cold, dead hands!
The Verdict on YouTube
Matt D.’s Top Five Evil Lawyers in Cinema
4. Aaron Eckhardt/Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent in The Dark Night/Batman Forever Why? Because Dent is Two-Face, a homicidal maniac who flips a coin to decide the fate of his victims.
3. Danny Devito as Deck Shifflet in The Rainmaker (1997) Why? He’s an ambulance chaser who, in one scene, sticks a business card in an accident victim’s mouth after showing up to his hospital room unannounced. EVIL! But kind of funny.
2. Jason Robards as Charles Wheeler in Philadelphia (1994) Why? Because, as the senior member of a powerful Philadelphia law firm and an intolerant prick to boot, Wheeler fires an associate after discovering the associate is gay and has AIDS. Bonus points for the fact that the story is based on real events.
1. Al Pacino as John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate (1997). Why? Do you even have to ask? You have badass Al Pacino playing the devil — who also happens to be a lawyer. That’s a triple whammy where I come from. Where’s that? Just to the left of awesome.
Who would you add to this list? Leave me some feedback and let me know.