It had been years since I last saw this movie directed by the great Sidney Lumet.
Lumet is a master filmmaker at shooting a predominantly talkie piece. His best special effect is, at least, the just as legendary Paul Newman as washed up alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin. Lumet opts to shoot Newman for the screen talent he is. Occasionally, his camera points up at Newman, who looks as if he will fall over. Lumet also makes Newman look great as he runs down a hallway, or with a stare of his familiar blue eyes. The chemistry of camera and performance are blended rhythmically.
Alcoholism has been depicted countless times, but Newman’s interpretation ranks at the top of the list. He can’t function without his drink whether it’s gaining a high score on pinball, flirting, reading a brief or even getting a fast protein fix by dropping an egg yolk in a beer. Newman makes you wonder if Frank is going to pass out or fall asleep even while he’s barely practicing legal brilliance. He toes the line beautifully between coming undone and barely squeaking by. This is one of his best roles ever.
Frank Galvin is given a chance to salvage himself as goes up against the Boston Archdiocese and the hospital it owns in a case of medical negligence, who are represented by a conniving antagonist in the form of James Mason with his limitless resources, power, strategies and army of lawyers. If this were a silent film I’d buy it with Mason twisting a handlebar mustache. He’s absolutely a man you love to hate.
The dialogue crackles against simply the inflection of vocals from Newman, Mason, an unexpected Charlotte Rampling as Galvin’s sudden love interest, a difficult judge played by Milo O’Shea, and Frank’s assistant played Jack Warden. The delivery of lines, the twisty double crosses, and conflicts play to the precision of great Shakespeare. So much so that when on the rare occasion these characters curse or the ominous cue of music steps in, it’s all shocking and applauded.
The settings are great for atmosphere too. Worn in leather chairs, polished cherrywood tables and courtrooms, squeaky floors. This is a well worn Massachusetts backdrop of legal reputation and intimidation.
Every member of the filmmaking team from Lumet to the cast, to the composer,Johnny Mandel, and David Mamet’s fantastic script have been thought out and measured to completion.
Some will say this film is dated (rotary phones, ladies hairstyles, wardrobe; Year of release was 1982). I say its themes are still significant. Power is something that must always be overcome by a weak, flawed protagonist. Whether or not Frank Galvin can do it, matters not. It’s the struggle that’s important to follow in a film like “The Verdict.”