Reflections on "The Verdict"

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Screenplay by David Mamet

Starring Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden and James Mason

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

The underpinning context of "The Verdict" and its storyline is a legal system in which personal ambition, status, survival, self-satisfaction and manipulation of technicalities appear to have overwhelmed the system's fundamental precept of seeking justice. It is also the story of Frank Galvin's rediscovery of this underlying principle and his fight to gain justice for his client while regaining his own self-respect.

The subject of the legal case in hand is a young woman who attended a Catholic hospital for the birth of her baby. She received an anaesthetic which caused her to vomit and choke while sedated and, deprived of oxygen, she suffered brain injury, became comatose and then dependent on life support equipment.

Virtually all the characters are opportunistic or pragmatic to one degree or another. They accept the conditions and environment in which they work, adapt, and do what they can or need to do in order to make their way in the world, with little or no genuine or prolonged thought for the subject of whatever case they are dealing with.

The victim's sister and brother-in-law care for the victim but, worn down by time, pressure and grim reality, they are content to settle with the defendants to provide ongoing care for the young woman, but also to ease their own lives.

The Bishop responsible for the administration of the hospital is keen to play down the case for the sake of the smooth running of the hospital but is equally keen to offer only a modest settlement as a pay-off while ignoring the issue of the hospital's negligence and responsibility, and their consequences for the patient.

The doctors accused of negligence are content to be carefully tutored in their responses to questions so as to deflect awkward queries that might imply responsibility, to avoid any hint of a bad impression and to create confidence and trust.

This tuition or preparation is overseen by Ed Concannon, a celebrated, highly successful and quite unscrupulously determined legal craftsman who points out at one stage that he is paid to win, thereby suggesting a certain lack of moral integrity, replaced by legal dexterity.

Even the Judge in charge of the case appears to regard the proceedings as a game in which pride, self'satisfaction and legal fraternity have won out over principle and the underlying purpose of the proceedings.

These characters may be opportunistic, self-centred and blinkered but it is clear where they stand. The same cannot be said of Laura who ingratiates her way into Galvin's confidence and affections only to betray him to Concannon for money. This is pragmatism taken to the length of treachery.

When we first meet Frank Galvin, the lawyer engaged to represent our hospitalised victim, he is no better than any of the other characters. Frank has become an ambulance chaser. He is reduced to pursuing legal work by offering his services to the families of recently deceased people involved in accidents. At one time he was something of an idealist and a champion of principle but he was defeated by the cynicism, opportunism and corruption of others. His real crime, however, is that he accepted this defeat and he has steadily descended into disappointment and self-contempt. He now goes through the motions of a career in an attempt to keep his head above water and he drinks excessively because he recognises and disapproves of what he has become but also, perhaps, because he can't find the strength or the motivation to raise himself out of the pit into which he has dug himself.

Frank's colleague and loyal friend Mickey helps him by having him undertake what he regards as a straightforward medical malpractice suit which all concerned parties are keen to settle. However, when taking evidential photos for the case, Frank has something of an epiphany as he is made aware of the human consequences and repercussions of the medical error at the heart of the case. This is no longer merely an academic, money-making procedure - Frank's humanity and sense of purpose are unexpectedly rekindled and he opts to take the case to trial and seek justice rather than accept a sizeable fee in exchange for settling out of court and effectively sweeping the whole affair, and his client's life, under the carpet.

Naturally, Frank struggles to make his case, especially in the face of various underhand tactics employed by his legal opponent, all designed to ensure courtroom victory while denying, perhaps, natural justice.

Legal thrillers and courtroom dramas frequently end with a revelation that proves a case and apportions blame where it should be, and this film is no exception. Evidence is produced that reveals truth but, in keeping with the themes of opportunism and manipulation at the expense of justice, this evidence is to be dismissed on a legal technicality.

Legally speaking, Frank's case is over and he is left with nowhere to go in his summation speech except to appeal to the jury for justice.

Dr Thompson, Frank's expert witness whose position and testimony are belittled, manipulated and derided in court, despite offering an accurate assessment of events, suggests to Frank that he should not underestimate people and their capacity to hear the truth. Possibly with that thought in mind, Frank suggests to the jury in his summation that justice does not exist in itself and that for now, they are the law. As human beings and members of society, we create justice by listening and applying a sense of fairness, and this rather sums up the principal theme of the piece. The law can only aspire to the spirit of justice and upholding the law and its technicalities should not necessarily be regarded as a valid objective in itself, especially if in doing so, natural justice is failed as a result.

This gritty and relatively realistic legal drama manages to deliver the usual courtroom thrills while outdoing many of its rivals in terms of its underpinning issues and philosophy and its appeal to humanity, hope and honour with regard to its character development. Frank's rediscovery of idealism and integrity is not without difficulty as he gives in to and then battles fear, intimidation and self-doubt, but his slow and steady transformation is complete when he chooses dignity and principle as, drinking mere coffee, he declines to answer the treacherous Laura's phone call at the end of the film.

The whole was filmed in a natural, almost subdued style which suits the general import and tenor of the film, and Paul Newman has rarely, if ever, been better as he captures Frank's soulless survival and grifting, and his own surprise at his desire to do the right thing for his client whose case was merely being shunned or exploited by virtually all those involved.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie ( stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)

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