The Verdict

Paul Newman in "The Verdict."

Underdogs are never assholes or morally ambiguous. They’re upstanding citizens facing insurmountable odds against a foe that is better trained, better equipped and with larger resources. Oh, and generally it’s the foe that exemplifies all the worst qualities of humanity: arrogance, entitlement, and immorality. At least that’s the case in the movies. But it’s not the case in The Verdict.

The first time we see Paul Newman as the lawyer Frank Galvin he’s playing pinball in a dingy pub with a cigarette in his mouth a mug of beer sitting beside him on the windowsill. It’s not even past morning yet. He’s a disgrace to the profession – a barely functioning alcoholic who drums up business by crashing funerals and handing out business cards to the family of the deceased. He’s hardly the exemplary human being that typical underdogs are.

Galvin is given a payday case from his old friend Mickey (Jack Warden) – a botched medical operation that turned a woman into a vegetable, and all the parties want to settle outside of court. He doesn’t have to do any work and he’ll reap a fortune. And he was going to do it too – except he visits the victim and can’t stomach making the bargain. He brings the case to court, without consulting his clients, the victim’s sister and brother-in-law, and continues despite their protests. He wants to see justice, or some alcohol-hazed semblance of it, done.

The fantastic part about The Verdict is that Galvin does everything wrong – he negligently brings the case to court without consulting his clients, he has no case, and he’s doing everything not out of the interest of the victim or her family, but out of his own self-interest to restore his standing as a lawyer. It’s simultaneously an indictment of the legal system – that the system is so broken that doing wrong is the only way for things to be done right – and a satire of the underdog genre – that a disgraced, amoral, self-interested man ends up assuming the role of valiant do-gooder through dumb luck and an unwillingness to descend further than he has – at the expense of everyone else. it’s truly a sight to behold.

Newman is excellent in the film. His performance throughout most of the film is subdued and almost confused at the situation his character has created for himself. He was only 57 when he played Frank Galvin, but the character feels much older – he’s near the close of his lifetime, not just half-way through it. Notice the key scene of the film when Galvin decides to try the case. It’s a close-up of a Polaroid instant photograph that develops in real-time. It’s just a black slate and then it slowly begins to take the shape and form of the comatose victim connected to a web of tubes that keep her alive. It’s a disposable image that Galvin could easily set aside and forget, but there’s something deep within him, maybe the last vestige of hope, that this time will be different. This time, he’ll do something good.

Grade: A

Sidenote: It’s interesting that the film is so committed to the “broken legal system” theme that the climax of the film is based on inadmissible evidence. Watch for a young Bruce Willis sitting in the courtroom as an extra in the film’s final scenes (evidence that all stars gotta start somewhere!).

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3 Responses to The Verdict

  1. Nostra says:

    It was a great performance, but I had an issue with the ending, which was not realistic at all. The other lawyers would just appeal the case and win.

    • Modest Movie says:

      That’s what of the things I liked about the movie – that it is essentially a hollow victory. But it follows the movie’s “broken justice system” theme, so I didn’t have too many problems with it.

      • Nostra says:

        It took a point of my enjoyment of the movie, maybe it’s because I’ve studied law and it just was something that didn’t make sense…

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