No Other Cases: The Verdict (1982)
For a film to properly hit upon the theme of justice, there needs to be an unfortunate action that is perilously close to slipping by without punishment. While countless courtroom dramas use this element in tandem with thriller tropes like an exploding car or a snake in the mailbox, The Verdict excels with an old school approach to its storytelling with one of the greatest screenplays of all time. The 1982 Sidney Lumet drama (nominated for five Academy awards) focuses on an underdog that is absolutely out of his league – in short, it’s a flat-out masterpiece.
What works so well with an underdog lawyer in this type of courtroom drama is that a guy like Frank Galvin (played brilliantly by Paul Newman) possesses ideals that are to be admired; he believes in fairness, protecting the weak, and standing up for an injustice. When Frank is first introduced as a drunken ambulance chaser, it’s a jarring look for a character played by Paul Newman. His mentor, Mickey (a wonderfully gruff Jack Warden), explains his backstory as an idealistic man who tried to stand up for what he thought was right and was almost disbarred, then fired by his law firm, and ultimately left by his wife. This series of events left Frank disenchanted and on the bottle – this is where he is when we meet him – a lawyer with a heart of gold, desperate for redemption.
The setup of the film throws Frank into a situation where he takes a negligence suit brought on behalf of Deborah Ann Kaye by her sister and brother-in-law. The defendant of the case turns out to be the Archdiocese of Boston. Kaye was admitted to the hospital for what should have been a routine delivery, but during the procedure, her brain was deprived of oxygen, resulting in permanent brain damage, placing her in a permanent vegetative state. While the Archdiocese is willing to settle with the family for over 200 thousand dollars, Frank visits Deborah and falls into a moral crisis when he learns that no one is looking out for Deborah; her sister and husband are ready to skip town once they get their money from the settlement. Even though no one wants Frank to take the case to trial, he feels obliged to do so because someone has to stand up for the helpless. During the film, it appears that Frank and his ex-partner Mickey are the only ones who truly believe in justice.
While Judge Hoyle is rather over the top as a guy who is definitely on the side of the corrupt lawyers, the rest of the “antagonists” led by James Mason as the lead defense attorney, Ed Concannon, are not played as arch villains. Instead, Mason turns in a movie star performance as a killer attorney who is excellent at being a cutthroat lawyer. The type of guy Frank could be if he wasn’t so idealistic. The scenes where Concannon impressively drills his lawyer team set the stakes perfectly, serving as a stark contrast to Frank and Mickey’s rather humble office – a classic David vs. Goliath story. David Mamet’s sharp as nails screenplay finds a rather brilliant way to illuminate the idea that taking the settlement for over 200k is not just the smart move, it’s crucial to survive in this world. Frank’s desire for justice is rightly seen as irrational and almost childlike.
The romantic interest in the film is a mysterious woman named Lauren (played by Charlotte Rampling) who Frank meets at his local pub. Lauren brings up the idea that Frank is like a child, complaining that his reality isn’t fair. She wants him to be a man, but his alcoholism has regressed him to the point that he’s a shadow of himself (there’s several scenes where he’s playing pinball at his pub.) Sidney Lumet handles the tone of Newman’s struggle with alcoholism carefully and without too much drama injected into it – it’s simply a reality of the consequences to Frank’s decisions. It’s very difficult to show how a great lawyer that’s charming, smart, and motivated could be in such dire straits and Lumet nails it like few filmmakers do. When Mickey tells Frank that he’ll just get another case, Frank slips into a deep state of melancholy, muttering over and over, “There are no other cases. This is the case.”
Many have called this performance by Paul Newman to be his finest and I have to agree. What’s startling about his presence in the film is his ability to come off as pathetic (very similar to how George Clooney pulled this off in Michael Clayton.) The scene in which he invites Lauren to his apartment and she takes a look his meager living situation and the audience just buys into the fact that this guy is down and out and it doesn't seem like a stretch. This was a new frontier for Newman at this point in his career, probably the first time that audiences saw him as an older man. However, he’s still one of the most charming movie stars of all time, so when he needs to connect with a potential star witness at a crucial moment in the film, he crushes it.
Without giving too much away if you haven’t seen the film, the relationship with Lauren is probably the one aspect of the film that doesn't exactly hold up. However, that doesn't mean it doesn't work, it’s just that the film was released in 1982 and the gender roles are rather depressing.
The strongest section of The Verdict is the third act in which we finally get to see Frank in the courtroom, facing off with Ed Concannon. One of my favorite lines in the film happens when the judge steps in and cuts short Frank’s time with a witness and Frank responds with, “Your honor, with all due respect: if you’re gonna try my case for me, I wish you wouldn’t lose it.” The climax has loads of courtroom tropes that are tried and true, like the judge eating in his chambers, the surprise witness, and a closing argument by the heroic lawyer that turns the tide with the jury. Yet, through it all, Mamet’s writing showcases a mastery of theme, dialogue, and characterization – and the closing argument by Frank is an all-timer. “And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead… a little dead.”
Yes, the rest of his monologue lifts into an inspiring speech about the power of our faith in justice, but the dark sentiments really work for me and obviously resonate in our current day and age. I love that this film doesn’t rely on a big score to make the audience feel something. There aren’t establishing shots of flags or statues or even impressive shots of the Boston skyline to give the film scope. This is a film that digs deep into the characters and never lets go. Even the ending proves that justice doesn’t heal our wounds; it merely makes it tolerable to live another day.