Sidney Lumet: Reflections on ‘The Verdict’
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Screenplay by David Mamet
Sidney Lumet, who passed away yesterday at age 86, was one of the great moral compasses in American cinema. His best films – 12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon – are challenges to consider our individual culpability and responsibility in the actions of our social institutions. Each of those films presented this challenge in a different way, and your favorite will likely be the one that inspired your personal consideration. I offer up my personal consideration…
There are people who drink and then there are people who drink. The line between the two may be fine, but the differences in the day-to-day are vast. For all that is written about alcoholism, what is often forgotten – what those who are or have lived with alcoholics know too well – is that drinking is a means of giving structure to your life. Drinking situates you in relation to your job, your family, and everything else in your life in a way that allows you to defer any responsibility and self-reflection. Drinkers, real drinkers, wallow in their pain and guilt, but also eek out assurances that nothing is their fault so that they never have to face the consequences of their actions. They move forward, going to work, going to church, coming home, but they have drown out that which is so central to being alive, the ability to take responsibility for themselves.
Frank Galvin is that kind of drinker. The opening shot of Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982) shows everything you need to know about him. He stands alone, all but the barest of his profile hidden in shadows, at a pinball machine in a Boston bar. It’s midmorning, but you can tell that the glass of beer resting on the windowsill beside him is not his first of the day. Frank punches the buttons of machine, and we hear the clang of the ball rattling around the bumpers, then he pauses to take a sip from his mug, allowing the ball to slowly roll down the drain.
Lumet directed The Verdict from a screenplay by David Mamet, and on its surface it is a standard courtroom drama coupled with a familiar story of moral awakening. Frank, played by Paul Newman, is an ambulance-chasing attorney, and a pretty bad one at that, having been run out of more than a few funeral parlors while trying to solicit the bereaved. An old friend and former partner of Frank’s takes pity on him, and throws him a medical malpractice case: a young woman rendered permanently comatose when two doctors, at a hospital owned by the Archdiocese of Boston, gave her the wrong anesthetic during child birth. The message is clear, negotiate a settlement with the Church on behalf of the girl’s family, take your cut, and you will have enough money to drink yourself to death.
But when Frank goes to see the girl in the hospital, something washes over him, giving him his first jolt of true feeling in as long as he can remember. In the film’s most poignant shot, we watch two recently snapped Polaroids develop, showing the tubes running into the girl’s mouth, pumping food and oxygen into her body. What follows is fairly predictable – the refusal of the settlement, the back story of Frank’s decline, the nefarious trial judge, the opposition’s dirty tricks, the surprise witness that wins the case, and the double-crossing woman that almost breaks Frank’s spirit (a glaring example of Mamet’s propensity for misogyny). But it is not the ins and outs of that make The Verdict compelling; rather it is the depths to which the film probes the willingness of its main character to be accountable to himself and to others.
Lumet and Mamet present Frank’s conversion and crusade not as a noble act, but one of extreme selfishness. His decision not to settle the case before trial goes against the wishes of the people he represents – the girl’s sister and her husband, who need the money to start a new life in Arizona – and is not made in their best interests. “If I take the money, I’m lost,” Frank says, never mentioning the victim, who is already lost. The case becomes about his redemption, his recapturing of that spark of life he felt briefly in the hospital.
The brilliance of Newman’s performance is that there is actually little change in Frank’s character before and after his ‘moment of clarity.’ Newman plays Frank as drunk – a sad, tired drunk at first, and an energetic, hard-driven drunk later on, but always a drunk. There are moments of intense pain when Frank catches glimpses of the wreckage he leaves around him – as when a nurse calls him a whore and slams a door in his face – but Newman turns those famous blue eyes into glassy veneers with pinpoint pupils that betray Frank’s essential blindness to anything that is not straight ahead.
We see what Frank peripherally can’t, though, and ultimately the moral force of The Verdict is not in Mamet’s words but with Lumet’s camera. The main visual motif of the film is a long take that begins with the scene’s principle character loosely framed, and then a slow push into his face as the action unfolds, the effect of which is not only to anchor the character in specific space – Lumet may be unmatched in his filming of architecture – but to show that character’s relation to that space and to the institutions that dominate it. We see Frank dwarfed by the squalor of his apartment, and we see him belittled in a courtroom that wants to strip the last of his dignity away. But when the camera pushes in, we are reminded that he is an individual, and that he is not just a victim of these circumstances, but a participant in them as well. And as a man he is solely responsible for the fate of his own soul. (Conversely, when the camera pushes in on James Mason’s Ed Concannon, it is to show how comfortable and at ease one can be cloaked in corrupt power.)
The most famous of those long-take pushes comes near the end, when Frank delivers his summation to the jury, and implores them to embody the ideals of the law. He quotes Galatians – “Act as if you have faith,” the scriptural forbearer of the AA mantra, “Fake it ‘til you make it” – calling our desire for justice “a fervent and frightened prayer.” The plea is still selfish in origin, the “prayer” being as much for him as anyone, but it holds the hope of being able to reach out to another. To make amends, both litigious and personal.
The Verdict ends in Frank’s office. He has won the case, and he sits at his desk, sipping coffee. The phone rings, the deceitful lover on the other end, and the volume becomes almost deafening. Frank is not drinking at the moment, but he is still a drunk, and if he wants to go on living he first has to find a way to live with himself.