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A Newman classic: ‘The Verdict’

In honor of the life and career of Paul Newman, one of my favorite actors, here is a piece I wrote eight years ago:

Ordinary noises, human sounds dominate The Verdict (20th Century Fox, 1982), the greatest courtroom drama ever filmed. Whether they are the bells of a pinball machine, the hiss and hum of a hospital respirator, or the clink of ice cubes in a whiskey glass, they serve a far more important function here than mere aural landscaping.

Director Sidney Lumet drapes his film in a shroud of stillness of grief, of regret. It’s dark. It’s Boston. It’s winter. There is no soundtrack in the movie to speak of — and extended sequences where no one talks. So that when we hear something as benign as the bumper of a pinball machine as the movie opens, we welcome the comfort it provides.

Otherwise, we are passing through a grim universe, an unyielding moral vacuum. The movie’s protagonist, lawyer Frank Galvin, as captured by Paul Newman, is a shabby, self-hating drunk, taken to chasing coffins in funeral homes. Few Hollywood glamour gods have ever allowed themselves to be portrayed here as Newman has — and he was wrongly denied an Oscar for his performance. An early shot, with his hand shaking so violently that he must drink whiskey by bending his head and sipping it, is part of an initial tragic suite of scenes: Galvin getting tossed from a funeral home, Galvin holding court at the corner bar, Galvin trashing his law office. They establish the character for what he is: a mess, a loser.

And the wonder of this movie is that, by the end of the film, he isn’t much different. There are no epiphanies, no 12-step programs, no sunrises and swelling of the orchestra. The movie takes great pains to show us that seeking justice for a few moments — and even getting well-paid for it — doesn’t transform you. It just makes surviving a hell of a lot easier.

As with most great movies, the plot doesn’t torture us with intricate details. Galvin has a single case — one that he has neglected for months. A young woman lies in a coma, brain-damaged while giving birth. To Galvin, it’s literally a no-brainer. He plans on snagging a quick settlement with the Catholic Archdiocese that runs the hospital.

An early scene shows Galvin visiting his client for the first time, as he sits on an adjoining bed in a constant-care ward. As the Polaroids of the comatose woman, tethered to a halo of life-perpetuating machines, take shape, we see that Galvin, maybe for the first time, is realizing that his client — and he — are human.

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