Paul Newman's courtroom masterpiece gets a sturdy upgrade to high-definition....
Fox / 129 Minutes / 1982 / Rated R / Street Date: May 7, 2013
Every Academy Awards telecast has one race that's considered the most interesting, the most hotly contested and the most difficult to call. In 1982, Vegas odds makes were agog over the race for Best Actor. The nominees were: Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Jack Lemmon in Missing, Paul Newman in The Verdict and Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year.
Even if you throw away O'Toole in the wonderful, though hardly Oscar-worthy My Favorite Year, you're still left with four performances that, to this day, rank among the finest in each actor's respective careers. Every Best Actor hopeful had been nominated at least five times before, except Kingsley, who was enjoying his first nomination.
I saw The Verdict at the tender age of 16 and it was one of the first "real" films I truly enjoyed, so my money was on Paul Newman, who so brilliantly played an ambulance-chasing attorney who finds one last shot at redemption in the form of a medical malpractice lawsuit. However, the Academy is, was and always shall be, a sucker for foreign accents and Kingsley (who, as a Brit portraying an Indian had two accents, thereby doubling his chances of winning) took home for the prize for his sensitive and realistic portrayal of Mohandas Gandhi. Four years later, the Academy, in it's ‘let give him an Oscar before he dies’ mode, awarded Newman a Best Actor trophy for the inferior The Color of Money (at least that wasn't as bad as giving Al Pacino his long deserved Oscar for his ridiculous hambone performance in Scent of a Woman.)
To watch The Verdict is to see an actor perform at the very top of his craft. Using body language, silence and other subtle tricks not so popular these days, he crafts an unforgettable portrait. Notice how Newman's Frank Galvin clutches his briefcase like a security blanket when he sits. Notice how he bends down to slurp his morning scotch without even lifting the shot glass to his mouth. Notice how he instinctively bites his thumbnail during times of stress. Subtly played, these affectations turn a good performance into a great performance.
And make no mistake, Frank Galvin is a bundle of nervous, desperate mannerisms. As a down and out lawyer, he's only worked four cases in the previous three years and he's lost every one of them. He drinks whiskey for breakfast and gives out business cards to grieving widows at funeral parlors. Frank's mentor Mickey, (Jack Warden) throws him a bone now and again and this time it's a malpractice lawsuit against a hospital owned by the Boston archdiocese. Two esteemed doctors allegedly gave a pregnant woman the wrong anesthetic during labor, forcing her into a coma. Clearly a "take-the-settlement-and-run" affair, Frank instead sees the case as a chance to renew his faith in the justice system and himself. So, after turning down the hospital's settlement offer, this unwinnable case goes to court. The hospital is represented by Ed Concannon (fellow Oscar nominee James Mason), known around town as "The Prince of Darkness." And the judge (Milo O'Shea), no fan of Frank, makes it difficult for him to prepare his case effectively.
But Galvin has something even more important than time, resources and star witnesses: a renewed desire to make a difference. And while a lesser movie would cue the music and give Frank an overbaked, rabble-rousing speech, The Verdict's power is all interior. Sure Galvin's fighting the system but he's also fighting his own emotional and professional numbness. It's a tone and mood that director Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) creates and sustains beautifully. As for Newman, it's a career-best performance. The Verdict is a stirring tale of redemption. But more importantly, it's about a quiet cloud of desperation, slowly lifted.