12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice by Brian Brems

12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice #7 – ‘The Verdict’

The Verdict 1982 Movie - Film Essay

Before an image appears on screen in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, there is the sound of a pinball machine quietly rattling; the high-pitched clank of the ball against the totems inside, ringing to accumulate points; the sliding and clicking of the flippers, lackadaisically flicked to stave off the end of the game. Finally, the film fades up from black, and a man stands at the pinball machine, joylessly playing to pass the time. Gray winter light barely shines in from the window beside him. He is nearly a silhouette against the snowy sidewalks outside. On the windowsill, a half-drunk glass of whiskey. The location, presumably a bar at midday, is otherwise deathly silent. It is a moment of pathos, an intimate, private moment that belongs to one man alone. The camera voyeuristically pushes towards him slowly, the clatter of the pinball machine the only sound. 

Thus begins Lumet’s 1982 courtroom drama, written by Chicago playwright David Mamet, chronicler extraordinaire of the hustlers, crooks and thieves who populate the American experiment. The man at the pinball machine is Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a two-bit lawyer well past his prime, as the afternoon slug of whiskey and lonely idle time reveals. After the grandiose scale of Prince of the City (1981), Lumet’s previous epic indictment of the American justice system, it is unsurprising that he would retreat to quieter, more personal territory. The Verdict feels small in scope, but not ambition. It is a character piece about the glimmer of professional recovery; its world-weary hero begins the film a washed-out loser and slowly rediscovers his faith in his own moral certitude. Galvin’s journey back to belief contrasts deeply with the downward moral trajectory of Danny Ciello (Treat Williams), the corrupt cop at the center of Prince of the City, who loses everything, up to and including his own soul, as he tries to expose graft in the New York City police department. The Verdict is Lumet’s morality play, a palate-cleanser after the bitter cynicism of his previous film that affirms the fundamental goodness of a few ordinary people within the justice system. It is Lumet’s most hopeful justice system film since his debut, 12 Angry Men, premiered in 1957.

Galvin is a wounded animal, beaten down by the legal system that unfairly excommunicated him because he refused to participate in a corruption scheme many years before the film’s narrative action begins. In his moral certitude and rejection by the system, he recalls the proud police officer from Lumet’s Serpico (1973), played by Al Pacino, who likewise refused to be a party to bribery. When The Verdict begins, Galvin is hustling for clients at funerals, trying to lure grieving family members into filing lawsuits by casually dropping his card after offering weak condolences. In the words of his powerful opponents, Galvin is “an ambulance chaser” who is “scared to death to go to court.” Shortly after the film opens, Galvin finds himself serving as the attorney for a comatose woman’s family in a civil case against the Catholic Archdiocese for the city of Boston; the patient is the victim of an obvious case of medical malpractice, as doctors at the Catholic hospital incorrectly administered anesthetic to her before routine surgery, leaving her permanently in a vegetative state. Though Galvin initially sees the case as an easy winner from which he can extract a quick settlement payout, he soon discovers his empathy for the victim, and resolves to take the church’s doctors to court, where he can prove their guilt and inflict the maximum civil penalty for the family and himself, maximizing their monetary reward. The victim’s family bridles at Galvin’s risky bet, but Galvin believes he has the facts on his side. In typical Lumet fashion, the system — here represented by an alliance between two extremely powerful institutions, the Catholic Church and the city’s legal structure — will not go down without a fight, and continually asserts its dominance over Frank at every turn. 

The Verdict Movie Film

After a series of films on the streets of New York City with Serpico and Prince of the City, with a hostage situation in the crime thriller Dog Day Afternoon (1975) sandwiched in between, Lumet dials down the gritty, neo-realist feel that dominated those films. The Verdict is a classically constructed text, adhering more to the visual strategies that motivated Lumet when he began his film career with 12 Angry Men. It is a throwback to his earliest work, unsurprisingly carrying with it Lumet’s willingness to admire his central character — Galvin is a noble man in the tradition of Juror 8 (Henry Fonda), animated at first by institutional responsibility and finally by principle. The victim “put her trust in her doctors,” Galvin tells the Bishop (Edward Binns — Lumet’s Juror 6 from 12 Angry Men) who offers him the settlement payoff. “I can’t do it. If I take the money, I’m lost,” he confesses, a fire burning in the fireplace over his shoulder, reminding him what awaits him on the other side of an immoral life. As Galvin, Newman plays much older than 57, which is how old he was when he made the film, mostly on account of the way he expresses the lawyer’s sheer exhaustion. For the first half hour of The Verdict, he moves through the world half-asleep, every step in a kind of slow motion. Lumet’s direction has slowed everything down, a far cry from the manic, high-wire performances of his younger actors: Pacino in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, and Treat Williams in Prince of the City. In each of those titles, the central character magnetically carries the film forward at a breathless pace, consumed by paranoia, fury, mania and desperation. Those characters are at the ends of their particular ropes, but they are young men, and rage against the dying of their lights. Galvin has barely half their energy. Even as he rediscovers his passion for the law, combing through files and assembling evidence and witnesses to make his case, he does so bleary-eyed, sighing out of frustration, coughing from chain-smoking, clearing his throat from too much rotgut whiskey. By 1982, Newman’s voice had taken on a low rumble, a gravel-road crunch that deepens the pathos of lines like “The court doesn’t give them justice. The court gives them a chance at justice,” issued from Mamet’s repetition-obsessed typewriter. Galvin has been there before, far enough removed from his own defeat at the hands of the system to have forgotten the immediacy of the pain, but close enough to be able to run his fingers over the lingering scar tissue.

In Lumet’s world, Galvin shouldn’t stand a chance against a system that has marshalled all of its resources against him so that it might protect itself. In refusing the settlement offer from the Archdiocese and taking them to trial, Galvin has decided to reject his predetermined role. As a litigator, he is not supposed to see the inside of a courtroom; cases like his are supposed to be settled well before they reach a judge, so that power might remain inside regal, oak-lined rooms, behind glossy wooden desks. Trials mean exposure. Trials mean scrutiny. Trials mean the endangerment of control. In The Verdict, the legal officials who line up against Galvin are the willing middle-men carrying water for the Archdiocese, facilitating settlement agreements that redound to everyone’s benefit. The plaintiff’s attorney wins a handsome fee. The plaintiffs themselves earn a kind of closure that monetary remuneration brings. The judge get to move through their caseload with the minimum amount of stress and conflict. The defense attorneys avoid the extensive work of a trial and the risk of a humiliating defeat. And most of all, the defendants admit no fault, pay a fee to make the harm they caused go away, and carry on without changing anything of substance. Settlements protect the guilty. Galvin bucks the system, refusing to participate any longer in guarding their interests. He serves his client instead.

The Verdict Movie Film

It is not easy. The system’s power arrays against Galvin. He is one man, alone, and in Lumet’s films, the single man is nearly always obliterated by the awesome power of the institutions in which he serves. He can obey its rules, and it may choose to destroy him, as it does in Serpico. He may reject its rules, and it may choose to destroy him, as it does in Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet’s justice system is indifferent to all but the preservation of its own power; it is entirely self-sustaining. Galvin’s chief opponent is the Archdiocese’s high-profile, high-priced lawyer, Ed Concannon (James Mason), whose zealous commitment to his place in the system motivates his desire to win the case for his clients by any means necessary. His arrogance, imbued with upper-class elegance by Mason’s silky-voiced delivery, makes him a patrician guardian of the justice system’s crucial function: continuity. However, Concannon’s blue-blooded courtliness masks his duplicity. In the run-up to trial, Concannon’s legal team spirits away one of Galvin’s crucial witnesses, a doctor who was going to testify that the victim’s physicians ought to be held responsible for her comatose state. When Galvin discovers his witness’s absence on the eve of the trial, he desperately tries to bail out, calling the Archdiocese directly and nearly begging them to offer the settlement money once again. They refuse — Galvin has burned the boats, and there is no turning back. Having rejected the settlement offer once, the system punishes him for his hubris, now foreclosing any chance at the money. If he will not play by the system’s rules, then it will ensure that he is crushed. 

Concannon’s most devious trick is revealed more than midway through The Verdict. Galvin has embarked on a romance with a young law student named Laura (Charlotte Rampling) after meeting her in his favorite bar, just a few strides away from his pinball machine. In Laura, Galvin finds a confidante, a sexual partner, and an admirer. However, she has been sent to him by Concannon as a spy, and has been feeding the opposition with crucial information that compromises Galvin’s strategy. Laura’s conscience gets the better of her, but before she can fully confess, Galvin discovers her allegiance to Concannon and slaps her in the mouth in the middle of a busy restaurant, a shocking moment of physical violence that reveals Galvin’s dark side. In one outrageous moment, Lumet undermines the audience’s sympathies for Frank, but likewise tells a story about his intervening years, the depths to which his despair and drinking must have sent him. 

The Verdict Movie Film

Throughout The Verdict, Lumet uses visual strategies to express the system’s power, as he often does throughout his work on the justice system. The production design relies heavily on deep, dark, wooden frames: the doors, the walls and the desk in Judge Hoyle’s (Milo O’Shea) chambers are all the same shade of stain, the banality of authority given architectural monotony. The same shade of wood populates the offices of the Archdiocese as well, strengthening the visual bond between the legal system and the church, aligned through their common financial interest. There is power in uniformity, these rooms seem to suggest. The design extends to the courtroom where the trial takes place, its massive wooden pillars stretching into the heavens out of frame. Lumet has often used columns to illustrate the justice system’s power. In the opening and closing moments of 12 Angry Men, the pillars outside a New York City courthouse inspired his camera’s awe as it looked up in admiration of the system they represented. By the time of Prince of the City, those same columns outside that same courthouse seemed to mock the corrupt police officer at the film’s center, outrageous monuments to a system without redeeming value. Inside the courtroom in The Verdict, columns line the walls, stained the same deep shade of brownish-red that appears in the judge’s chambers and the bishop’s office, making all those inside the room subservient to the institution’s power. 

As is true of many of Lumet’s productions –both those that focus on the justice system and those that do not — The Verdict is a film that hinges on its performances. Strikingly, Lumet chooses a restrained visual style, most frequently shooting scenes in wide shots. Even his close-ups are usually better classified as medium shots, leaving room for his characters’ upper bodies. During the trial, Judge Hoyle, in a fit of pique, takes over the questioning of Frank’s witness, a medical expert brought in to verify his argument. Galvin bristles against the judge’s overreaching, and launches into an accusatory tirade moments later in the judge’s chambers. Not once during this intense exchange of dialogue does Lumet cut to a close-up. His camera remains fixed in the corner of the room, a wide shot with the judge seated, back to the camera in the foreground, Frank in the middle ground and Concannon looming against the wall in the background, all in focus. Back in the courtroom, Lumet points the camera down at Frank from the ceiling, making him look small and insignificant inside it. In the vestibule outside, Lumet creates the same effect by pointing the camera up at Galvin from a low angle, framing him against the marble archways that invest the architecture of the building with its intimidating power. In this cathedral, where the religion is the principles of American justice and the rule of law, Galvin is powerless to enact those beliefs. The columns inside the courtroom, the statues in the hallways, the soaring arches — they are empty symbols of a system that has lost its way.

The Verdict Movie Film

Galvin, however, is anything but lost. By the end of The Verdict, his case having been rescued by the testimony of a nurse who was in the operating room and swears to the doctors’ negligence, Galvin has found himself. His final summation to the jury is yet another moment of bravura performance from Newman that is remarkably understated in every way. Lumet restrains the camera, playing nearly the entire speech in an extremely wide shot. Galvin does not roar and rage, but quietly delivers his monologue as though he were muttering it to himself, not the court as a whole. Initially, he does not pace the room, but stands still at his table. He reminds himself what he believes in, untethering his principles from the system’s approval. Galvin no longer requires the justice system to believe in the possibility of justice. He realizes that the ideals that the system was founded on transcend what we have built. It is the system that is fallible, the system that has failed; the ideals, the principles, the beliefs — they remain. 

Galvin tells the jury: “You know, so much of the time, we’re just lost. We say, ‘Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.’ And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead... a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims… and we become victims. We become… we become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law. You are the law. Not some book. Not the lawyers. Not the, a marble statue. Or the trappings of the court. See,  those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are…they are, in fact, a prayer: a fervent and a frightened prayer. In my religion, they say, ‘Act as if ye had faith, and faith will be given to you.’ If… if we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And act with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.”

The Verdict Movie Film

Eventually, Lumet pushes the camera in on Galvin as he leaves the table and walks towards the jury box. The close-up he settles on remains fairly wide, which Galvin then departs to return to his table after he concludes. Though Lumet’s predilection for cynicism abounds throughout the film, the jury’s verdict finds for the plaintiff, and even awards much more money than was initially suggested. The verdict feels like a deus ex machina, suddenly redeeming Frank in spite of the numerous institutional forces gathered against him. In this way, The Verdict once again conforms to its classical style, affirming the final optimism of 12 Angry Men. However, Lumet allows himself a coda — a ringing telephone in Frank’s office, with the wounded Laura on the other end, reaching out through the night to try to reestablish their connection. Frank waits, unsure if he is ready to forgive. Though the jury’s verdict is final, and Galvin has emerged victorious, he has learned that to embody the values he spoke of in his address to his 12 fellow citizens, he must choose to do so every day. It is tiring. It is defeating. But it is the only way. Galvin has reclaimed his ability to believe. After a series of extraordinarily cynical films, so had Lumet. But being able to believe and actually believing — those are two different things.

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Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.