Friday, April 5, 2013

Gus Cileone: Why I Love Sidney Lumet's THE VERDICT

In advance of our four-week class on filmmaker Sidney Lumet starting Tuesday, April 9 at the National Museum of American Jewish History, film fan Gus Cileone looks at the depiction of truth in one of his favorite Lumet films, The Verdict, starring Paul Newman.

Why I Love Sidney Lumet's The Verdict
By Gus Cileone, BMFI Patron and Film Fan
*Spoiler Alert*

We lost one of our most gifted and prolific directors not too long ago. Sidney Lumet made such great films as: Long Day's Journey into Night, Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, and Network. However, a number of his films deal with crime and the legal system. These include: 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, and Prince of the City.

My favorite movie in this area, one that deals with who stands for what is right and what is wrong, is The Verdict. You cannot find another title of a movie that has so much to do with what the film is about. The word "verdict" is derived from the Latin and means "to speak the truth." This movie shows how lies can have tragic consequences and how outward appearances are not good indicators as to who is the most reliable source of truth. It is here where the marriage of Lumet with writer David Mamet is a match made in screenwriting heaven. Mamet, too, deals with the line between justice and injustice, society's rules and the breaking of those rules, in such films as House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross, and The Edge.

The Verdict, a 1982 film, showcases Paul Newman—in maybe his best performance—as Frank Galvin, a promising lawyer who has fallen from legal and ethical grace in the Catholic world of Boston's jurisprudence. We first see him as an alcoholic who tries to fund visits to his favorite bar by browsing the obituaries and soliciting representation from grieving families at funerals, pretending to be a friend of the deceased. His foul-mouthed mentor, Mick (Jack Warden), throws a potentially lucrative malpractice case his way. At first, Frank is just out for the money, looking for a quick settlement. He reassures the family of the comatose victim while not revealing his dilapidated office (an expressionistic touch that mirrors his life), under the pretense that it is filled with paper for another case (a lie). He also hangs a sheet of paper on his door that says he is meeting with the judge (untrue).

Paul Newman stars as a lawyer seeking redemption in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict.

The way setting is presented in this film depicts who has power and who are the downtrodden. In his book, Making Movies, Lumet says, "In The Verdict we used a very narrow color selection and older architecture. No modern buildings were seen in the movie." St. Catherine's (the Catholic Hospital), the courtroom, the office of James Mason's defending lawyer Concannon (whose name implies he is a big shot), Frank's sleazy apartment, and even the bar Frank frequents are old fashioned in style, but are differentiated as to level of refinement by those who populate them. The heft of the dark hardwood weighs everything down, emphasizing how difficult it is to alter society's entrenched power structure. Lumet emphasizes the disparity as to the opposing sides as he cuts between the old legal library where Newman and Warden prepare for the case, and the army of litigators in the opulent conference room presided over by Mason.

Editing is essential in showing Frank gravitating back to his ethical base (and living up to his name which means "free from guile"). As Lumet writes in Making Movies, "In The Verdict, the most important transition in the movie was illuminated by the close-ups of Paul Newman examining a Polaroid photograph. He had taken the picture of the victim, and he watched it develop. As the photograph took on life, he did too. I could feel the present breaking through for a man who, up until then, had been trapped in the detritus of his past life. It was the intercutting between the developing Polaroid and the close-ups of Newman that made the transition palpable." When Frank meets the Bishop (played by Edward Binns), he cannot accept the low offer that the Bishop gives him because "no one will know the truth" that those who should have looked after his client failed her. If he takes the hush money, he will be "lost."

James Mason and Paul Newman face off in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict.
Past lies have derailed Frank before and hinder his forward movement in the present. Warden tells Frank's new girlfriend, Laura (Charlotte Rampling), that Frank was forced to lie and take the fall for his law firm's jury tampering after he threatened to expose his partners. He lost his job and his wife. In the current case, he has a doctor willing to testify against a peer, but that physician is forced out of the country by the powers-that-be, so he cannot tell the truth. Even Frank is not honest with the relatives of the patient about no longer wanting to settle out of court. Concannon is always one step ahead of Frank and we find out why: Mick finds Concannon's check made out to Laura, who is a spy, feeding information to Concannon. Ironic that on their second meeting Frank tells Laura, "Tell me the truth. You can't lie to me." But she has fallen for Frank, and does not tell Concannon about the admitting nurse (Lindsay Crouse), who Frank convinces to testify. The esteemed doctor had not read that the patient had a full meal one hour prior to the delivery of her baby, and she aspirated vomit in her mask, causing her to lose oxygen, creating the vegetative state. The doctor then coerced the nurse to lie about the time of the meal, changing the "1" to a "9." The lies of the powerful spread like a virus to infect those working for them. It is ironic to see Concannon, who has been duplicitous with Laura, lecture the nurse about perjury. Even though the photocopy of the original admitting form is tossed out, the testimony is heard by the jury. The Bishop asks an underling, after the nurse's testimony, that despite Concannon's legal prowess, did he believe her? The other's silence shows that the jury saw the truth. The irony that the supposedly trustworthy Catholic Church is behind such a distasteful cover-up is evident here. Earlier in the film, Frank tells Laura, "The jury wants to believe. I mean they want to believe." In his summation, Frank says that we hear so many lies, we doubt our institutions, we feel powerless, and we become victims. But he tells the jury the outward signs of stature and tradition don't matter because today they are the law, and he believes that there is justice in our hearts.

Ultimately, the financial settlement is not as important as is the moral victory and truth may bring redemption, but it does not erase the betrayal of lies.

Gus Cileone is a retired government employee who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He has received several writing awards and has published two novels, A Lesson in Murder and Feast or Famine. You can visit his web site at

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