Friday, October 3, 2008
If Not Now
When I learned of the death of Paul Newman, I decided that as my own small tribute to the legendary actor that I needed to finally sit down and see THE VERDICT. Now, after I’ve seen it, I’m wondering why I waited so long. I’ve seen a few Sidney Lumet films that nobody else has ever seen, so you’d think I would have stumbled across one of his most acclaimed titles by now. David Mamet has written, as well as directed, a few favorites of mine so you’d think I’d have at least a passing interest in seeing the film from one of his earliest screenplays. And to bring it around to Paul Newman, there are a few gaping holes in his filmography which I have to take care of and it just seemed the right way to show the guy a little respect instead of seeing THE TOWERING INFERNO for the umpteenth time. THE VERDICT is so good, it sent such a charge through me, that I wanted to go out to find somebody I knew so I could get them to sit down and see this just like I did. It’s a courtroom drama and some of the things in it which might be considered par for the course within that genre may have been just as expected back in 1982 when it was first released but so what. It does what some of the best films do—it sent a charge through me. It made me want to be a better person, be a better writer. It’s not for me to say that it’s the ‘best’ film of the various people involved, including Paul Newman. But if I were to show somebody one film to show just how great he was, for me this would have to be it.
Newman plays Frank Galvin, a late middle-aged Boston lawyer who has only tried a handful of cases in the past few years, losing each of them. Mired in alcoholism, haunted by ghosts of his past that we can only guess at, he is lucky enough to have a friend (Jack Warden) drop a case in his lap which should be a slam dunk. A medical malpractice lawsuit where a woman giving birth was given the wrong anesthetic and is now a vegetable. The hospital and archdiocese are more than willing to settle the case with a generous financial offer. But Galvin, seeing in this case his own possible redemption, finds it necessary to try the case, going up against a high-priced law firm headed by the legendary Ed Concannon (James Mason). As Galvin dives into an affair with the beautiful divorcee Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling) he finds himself entering a trial he is ill-prepared for but also unaware just how powerful his opposition is.
Watching it, I can see where some of the inspiration for MICHAEL CLAYTON came from. The two films really have no similarity in terms of plot, but there is a similarity of a lawyer finding himself at the end of a rope of his own making. One small thing CLAYTON surely got from here is the scene of an antagonist reading aloud his own biographical history, allowing us to get a backstory that he lead himself never offers. CLAYTON was very much aping the films of the 70s and in being such a Lumet film, THE VERDICT manages to feel like a film from that decade which slipped in just under the wire a few years too late to be part of that time. Lumet's work here, as it is with all his best films, is deceptively simple, with a full awareness of how to make this film of people in rooms talking always compellingly cinematic. Mamet’s script is pretty damn near brilliant, with the writer’s familiar stylistic tics starting to fall into place even if they aren’t fully developed yet. It gives us just enough of what we need to know about the character of Frank Galvin, but no more. There’s never a long speech from Newman where he talks about how bitter he is about his past. It’s all in his face, his body movements, the way he sits, the way he is seen playing pinball in the bar he hangs out in and how we imagine the sounds of that game are rattling in his head. It’s a remarkable piece of acting. The big dramatic jump comes when the character does nothing but look at a few Polaroid photos develop themselves. Nothing is said, but we get it. It’s pure cinema. It’s beautiful. In the scene that follows when he rejects the impressive settlement offer he tries to express how he sees this as his last shot at redemption but can’t get much further than, “If I take the money, I’m lost. I’ll just be a rich ambulance chaser.” It’s a movie which knows to save its words for when they matter.
It’s a flawless cast in addition to the lead, particularly James Mason as the “prince of fucking darkness” defense attorney Ed Concannon as well as Lindsay Crouse, Mamet’s then-wife, as a key witness. Charlotte Rampling, sometimes a problem due to her inherent coldness is genuinely strong and fearless here. It's actually one of the most successful, not to mention unexpected, pieces of casting here. Even the actors in small roles have interest, such as some who have worked with Lumet before like Jack Warden and Wesley Addy. Lewis J. Stadlen, mostly known for stage work, has an interesting Groucho-like presence in the straight role of a potential witness for Newman. It makes sense to learn that he once played Groucho in the musical “Minnie’s Boys” and is a good example of a strong personality being used to pop off the screen in a small but key role. And, for the record, Bruce Willis is visible as a spectator in the courtroom near the end. I guess it’s not his fault that it kind of messes with the moment.
But it’s Paul Newman’s film. He is the film and it could almost be used as a two hour study in him as a screen presence and how good he really was. As we follow him over the course of the film, THE VERDICT becomes like getting a splash of cold water in the face and has stayed with me all week. “If not now, when?” he says to buddy Jack Warden when he’s seen the light and is ready to take this huge gamble in search of his redemption. The line lingers in every scene and every choice the character makes after that. As a result the character of Frank Galvin became a hero to me, just as Paul Newman became a hero, a legend, to people. That he left behind such a performance, not to mention all his other achievements in so many areas of life, is something to be celebrated. And remembered.