After a long career in which he created a number of unforgettable characters, including Chance Wayne, Hud, Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy, Paul Newman took his craft to another level entirely in his 50’s. Beginning with “Absence of Malice” in 1981, he scored three Oscar nominations in five years, finally winning his only Best Actor Oscar for “The Color of Money.” But as good as Newman is in the films I just mentioned, they don’t quite measure up to the level of his talent. Given the scene of a lifetime, Wilford Brimley walks away with “Absence of Malice” after we’ve spent an hour and a half scratching our heads over the profound mismatch of Sally Field and Paul Newman. Tom Cruise’s antics are a major distraction in “The Color of Money,” and unfortunately are not entirely erased by the subtle underplaying of Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio as his girlfriend and Newman as a middle-aged Eddie Felsen, a character he first played 25 years before in “The Hustler.”
Instead Paul Newman’s best work is displayed in the middle of his Oscar nomination streak, in 1982’s “The Verdict,” directed by Sidney Lumet from a script by David Mamet. For my money this is his best performance on film and the one that should have won him that Oscar.
“The Verdict” is a story of redemption, and Paul Newman at long last has the face for it. Age beautifully sharpened the planes of his face, finally removing what remained of his younger, slightly overripe look. It suits the film’s central character, an alcoholic attorney named Frank Galvin, to a tee. There’s nothing pretty about Galvin’s slipping a funeral director $50 just so he can get close enough to a grieving widow to pass her his business card. Or drinking his breakfast at a local bar, his hand shaking too badly to pick up the glass. Or trashing his own office out of self-disgust. Newman goes for broke as an actor here, and it’s marvelous to see.
“The Verdict” at issue is one sought in a medical malpractice case against a Catholic hospital in Boston, as well as the attending obstetrician and anesthesiologist of a patient, Deborah Ann Kaye, who went into cardiac arrest while in labor with her third child. The evident cause of this condition was a blocked airway after she vomited into her mask, which resulted in the death of her baby and her own vegetative state. Frank inherits this case from his now-retired law partner; his object is simply to wring some money out of the Archdiocese for Ms. Kaye’s care (and to collect a not inconsiderable fee for himself). But something happens on the way to the bank. When he visits the nursing home to take snapshots of his comatose client for the purpose of shaming the bishop out of money, he sees Deborah Ann Kaye for the first time—really sees her, tethered to tubes for the rest of her life. Newman’s wordless gaze at what remains of this woman, once a wife, mother and sister, transforms Frank Galvin from wreck into advocate. When he refuses the bishop’s settlement check he does so not just to fight for his client, but as an attempt to salvage his own worth.
What places “The Verdict” a cut above “Absence of Malice” and “The Color of Money” is that every performance in the film is without exception on a par with Newman’s. In no particular order there’s Julie Bovasso as a nurse with something to hide, who matches Galvin’s every push and shove. James Mason is simply stupendous as Concannon, Galvin’s slippery courtroom adversary—after so many years in film he turns in one of his finest performances. The very young Lindsey Crouse brings the right amount of innocence to the key role of Kaitlin Costello, the former nurse browbeaten into submission. Not to mention the incredible beauty and mystery of Charlotte Rampling’s Laura Fischer, and three of the best character actors around: Jack Warden as Galvin’s former law partner, Milo O’Shea as the old hack of a judge and Edward Binns as the sympathetic (to a point) bishop.
NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW
I saw “The Verdict” when it was first released and like the many attorneys who wrote screaming letters to the editor and op-ed pieces, I was appalled by the legal errors, ethical misconduct and outright crimes committed by the lawyers (and judge) in this film. God knows there are enough faults in the American legal system to complain about without a screenwriter’s having to invent more. In the real world Kaitlin Costello would have been among the first potential witnesses to be deposed, and Galvin or his former partner would have moved heaven and earth to find her long before it dawns on the two of them in the movie that she’s needed. I’ll spare you my rant about inducing expert witnesses to disappear, opening other people’s mail and failing to consult with the sister (and guardian) of a comatose client before rejecting a settlement offer. But the one screamer that really got to me was the exclusion of the photocopy of the original admitting record and the striking of Kaitlin Costello’s testimony from the record. If there’s one thing the American justice system is good at it’s permitting juries to hear challenges to the credibility of evidence. So it irked me no end to see the film give credence, even from a biased judge’s ruling, to the proposition that such challenges are impermissible.
What remains even more controversial to this day, however, is the character of Laura, the woman Galvin meets at his favorite bar and who becomes his sounding board, confidante and lover. Charlotte Rampling plays her with just the right amount of withholding, but it’s still a shock to discover who she really is. Ultimately you’re of two minds about her. She’s evidently blackmailed into doing what she does—it’s a fair bet she was sexually involved with Concannon at one time, otherwise why would he treat her so badly. Nevertheless she refuses to perform the ultimate betrayal by informing the Archdiocese’s legal team of the whereabouts of Kaitlin Costello (Concannon is totally flummoxed by her appearance in court as well as her testimony). As per Sidney Lumet in the extras of the DVD edition of “The Verdict,” women in the film’s preview audience cheered when Frank Galvin punched her in the face. Was it due to the mere fact of her betrayal of Frank, or because a woman who stoops that low betrays all women?
The end play of “The Verdict” is predictable. The Archdiocese will file a motion for remittitur to reduce whatever amount is ultimately awarded by the jury; failing that, it will appeal, but in the meantime offer Galvin a settlement far greater than the one he turned down. This time he’ll take it—his client will be well provided for, and Deborah Ann Kaye’s sister and brother-in-law will be able to get on with their lives.
But he’ll never pick up that phone that’s ringing with Laura’s call.