Blessed be pluralism. Just when you’re feeling depressed by the gargantuan success of An Officer and a Gentleman, not because it’s a wretched picture but because it’s a throwback to a pre-Vietnam social perspective that glorifies military sentimentalities—pygmy John Fordism—along comes a picture out of a contrasting social perspective, the Common Man syndrome: Frank Capra with updated language and sexual frankness. Paul Newman has long been linked with Common Man themes (though, contradictorily, one of his best performances was as a hard-shell conservative in Sometimes a Great Notion, which he also directed), so it’s no surprise to find him starring in the film. Similarly, it’s no surprise to find Sidney Lumet directing it. In fact there are few surprises in the whole enterprise on the thematic-atmosphericl evel, only in the plot twists, which are agreeable if not shattering. The Verdict is one more David and Goliath story except that it s modernized—David is no spotless hero, and Goliath, though not admirable, has at least a plausible case.
Boston. Boston Irish—that’s the real “territory.” All the action is pretty much confined to Boston Irish inter-fighting. Newman is a middle-aged B. I, lawyer, seedy and sodden, whom we first see trying to hustle business from new widows in funeral parlors. We learn later from his patient older pal and former law teacher. Jack Warden, that Newman is a Man of Sorrows. Naturally. No film hero can be seedy and sodden congenitally; he has to have suffered unjustly and in manly silence. But he has been running out his string, with drink and general disorder. Warden has obtained one last case for him—last, because if Newman doesn’t come through on this one it’s the end of his nearly finished legal career. The case is one of gross negligence against a hospital run by the archdiocese: a young woman in childbirth has been turned into a vegetable for the rest of her life through medical blunders on the delivery table. The bishop, with whom the defense decision finally rests, wants to settle the case quickly out of court—with a hefty settlement—because it’s important that the hospital’s reputation not be sullied in public: the hospital must keep the public’s confidence because it serves its community generally well. Any hospital could conceivably have such a ghastly accident: therefore compensation, quietly and amply, and continuance.
But Newman has seen the victim and has heard the opinion of a medical expert: and, further, resents the smugness with which they expect him to snap up the check of which (they know) he is to get a third. He declines and chooses to go to trial. The archdiocese then engages the best B. I. trial lawyer, James Mason, who has an army of assistants and the glamour of success. Up against him goes Newman, with bloodshot eyes into which he keeps squirting drops, with whiskey breath into which he keeps squirting other drops, trying to pull up his socks and his life, aided only by Warden.
The story is mostly well built and briskly paced, the characters drawn with that sharp quick-sketch quality of good entertainment where a little counts for a lot. None of these people would be considered profoundly drawn in a serious film, but here they have just enough depth to assure us that the filmmakers didn’t want them to be puppets. The very last sequence is one of those Maltese Falcon-Third Man endings that leave an agreeably tart, “mature” aftertaste.David Mamet, an occasionally interesting playwright, adapted the screenplay from a novel by Barry Reed, which I haven’t read. The script has a nice pop-cynical tone, and it comes through when it absolutely must deliver: Newman’s summation to the jury. This speech is terse and pungent: the powerful have the power to convert all the rest of us into victims and that condition probably cannot be changed, but must it always prevail?
The script has its bumps, though. Would Newman have turned down a hefty settlement offer without consulting his clients, the woman’s sister and brother-in-law? Would he have opted for trial without a deposition in hand from his key witness? Would his new lady friend have carried telltale evidence in her pocketbook? And would the bishop be willing to blink, as he does, at the fact that a surprise witness has shown the hospital to be truly criminal? Would he have been willing to shield the guilty behind the legal technicality invoked? The film’s firm qualities themselves make these flaws stand out. The visual texture and the acting are so thorough that the plot mechanics obtrude especially, as if we could spot cracks in the scenery of a gripping theater melodrama.
Part of that good visual texture comes from the production designs by Edward Pisoni (Newman’s entresol office in particular), and considerably more comes from the cinematography by Andrzej Bartkowiak, who did Prince of the City for Lumet. Bartkowiak tones down colors all along the spectrum in a way that sobers them aptly without making them drab.
The theater reference above isn’t stretched because Lumet handles much of the film theatrically. Many scenes are shot from the fifth-row-center angle, and he uses the theater’s simultaneous two-room composition a few times. For instance, in a fairly long shot, we see Newman bring his lady-friend home to his apartment. He switches on the light in the kitchen where they come in; the light has been left on in the bedroom where
they will end up. Between the two lighted areas is the living room, which is dark. The composition is V-shaped with the camera at the point of the V and with blackness in between the two lighted places. The V fixes depth and destination.
As he often is, Lumet is skillful with his actors. His key achievement is with Charlotte Rampling, Newman’s amour: Lumet almost manages to make her tolerable, a Herculean job. He holds down Milo O’Shea, as the judge, which O’Shea always needs, and he keeps Mason, as the star lawyer, from being a star actor. From Warden he gets a generous slice off the enjoyable Warden loaf; and Lumet gets Newman back to acting again.
In the past several years Newman has shown that he has one of the rare faces: it doesn’t age, it purifies. The youthful prettiness is replaced by a moving clarity. (Think of Gary Cooper, Celia Johnson, Victor Sjostrom, Wendy Hiller.) But his acting can get lethargic and facile, as it was in Fort Apache, the Bronx. He was better in Absence of Malice, if only because there he couldn’t coast on cliches: he had to supply the reality missing in the role. In The Verdict he has a reliable traditional role, the Man Who Came Back; it’s always been juicy, he knows its perimeter, knows its possibilities, knows what he can assume and what he must supply. But he has gone further. With Lumet’s aid or insistence, he has apparently chosen a real-life model or models and has shaped his performance on what he has observed. He seems to be working on a short axis, holding his performance close to his vest, doing no more and not a damned bit less than he can verify; yet it’s all affectingly colored by—that lovely paradox of acting—his own feelings about the character and his own personality. This is realistic American film acting at its veristic/imaginative best.
This article originally ran in the December 20, 1982, issue of the magazine.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.