Paul Newman as lawyer and struggling alcoholic Frank Galvin.
This week, in my ongoing search for the Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time, I decided to re-watch #10 on the ABA’s Top 25…
1982 dir. Sidney Lumet
Some movie lawyers are noble. Some are cruel, or cold, or just in it for the money. In “The Verdict,” Frank Galvin represents the movie lawyer at his most pathetic. His law practice in shambles, Galvin is a hard-drinking ambulance chaser, a pariah who crashes funerals and wanders through the world in a half-drunken stupor. The few cases he can still get he mostly loses; he barely tries anymore. His life is a bad lawyer joke, but it’s not funny, it’s just sad.
Galvin is played by Paul Newman, though, so you also can’t help but like him, no matter how hollowed out he is. Then a case falls in his lap that reopens his eyes to the world. He starts to care again – not just about winning, but about the truth, and justice, and doing the right thing, whatever that means.
This arc should sound familiar by now. Part of the lawyer movie genre’s built-in appeal is the idea of redemption. Lawyers can represent the best and worst of us – our highest ideals and our basest instincts. That’s why so many lawyer movies are about moral reawakenings. They offer the idea that one good case can give a man back his soul.
What makes “The Verdict” so good is the understated way it goes about telling this redemption story. Paul Newman gives a remarkable, quiet performance. Even at trial, his voice remains low and weary. Galvin seems to be in a perpetual daze, like he can hardly believe what’s happening to him and how he’s changing. When he makes his closing statements, he does so humbly.
The script by David Mamet and the direction by Sidney Lumet are both equally restrained. The film takes its time and lets silences linger. The style works well because the story itself is fairly modest. The bad guys are bad, but they’re not evil. The stakes are high, but not life-or-death. It’s a personal injury case, and the verdict in question won’t change the world. But it means something. At least the lawyer who’s arguing it.
“The Verdict” can currently be streamed on Netflix and rented on iTunes and Amazon. Check it out. As far as lawyer movies go, it’s a classic.