Saturday, 31 March 2007

The Verdict (1982)

The Verdict

The Verdict is the fourteenth title in Fox's Cinema Reserve series, and their second Paul Newman title, the first being The Hustler, which I reviewed back in September last year.

As with the previous titles, this Cinema Reserve edition is purported to be the best available version. It arrives as a two-disc edition featuring a reasonable number of extra's, packaged in a solid, plastic-inlayed tin box which also contains a short 'press kit marketing' booklet about the film.

This is a slightly older Newman than we're used to, having been made in the 80's rather than the 60's, and it's scary to think that this is a '25th anniversary' edition. The film was nominated for five oscars, including 'Best Film' (it lost to Ghandi), 'Best Actor' (for Newman) and 'Best Director' (Sidney Lumet) but didn't win any of them. To be honest, I'm not surprised. It's an interesting film, but I'd say too run-of-the-mill to be oscar worthy.

Paul Newman plays a washed-out, alcoholic lawyer who's given one last chance - a difficult case that could lead to his redemption

The Verdict is a tale of redemption: the redemption of alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin (Newman). Galvin is a man who's fallen on hard times after refusing to play the typical boy's game of lying and cheating in his previous employment at a big, prestigious firm of lawyers.

As the film opens Galvin is depressed and suffering from the shakes. He has been reduced to gate-crashing funerals to try and sell his services to grieving widows, presumably as some sort of ambulance chaser. With his business about to go under, and too much of his day spent in the local bar, it's his friend Mickey Morrisey (Jack Warden) who offers him a last-chance job - a negligence case involving a famous doctor and the Church which should prove an easy earner thanks to a generous out-of-court settlement opportunity.

Galvin has sunk to the gutter, but not so low that he doesn't recognise injustice when he sees it, and against all advice decides to fight the case to win more money. He finds himself pitted against silent, frightened witnesses, and a formidable team of City lawyers, headed up by Ed Concannon in what is a superb performance from James Mason. With even his best friend thinking he's made the wrong decision it's up to Galvin, and his newly discovered, supportive girlfriend Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling) to find the inner strength to persevere with the case, see that justice is done, and in the process redeem the human being he used to be.

Jack Warden plays the one friend who hasn't given up on Newman's character

As you've probably gathered, this is very much a character piece, and an enjoyable, if rather dated one, for all that. But it's not hard to see why the film lost out on many of the awards in the Academy Award categories it was nominated for.

The direction by Sidney Lumet is rather pedestrian, and too static for too much of the time. Whilst Newman, in a film many an actor would kill for, gives a great performance he's a bit too clean and good looking (even in his late 50's) to be totally believable as the washed-out, alcoholic lawyer he's playing here, despite some neat character tics that make the character feel more real. Mason is fantastic, even though approaching his later years, as the man determined to bring Newman down, in a role that could easily have become pantomime villain. Mason instills his character with decency and a sense of right, despite the behind-the-scenes manipulations he undertakes to ensure he wins his case. More importantly he re-energises the film every time he's on screen, often at times when our interest is beginning to flag. Charlotte Rampling, too, delivers in a somewhat clichéd and undemanding role - that of the enigmatic, British femme fatale who doesn't have to do a lot other than seem mysterious.

The film spent some time in development hell with numerous actors interested in the project, directors assigned and then leaving, and endless rewrites, with the main problem being indecision about how to deal with the ending. Or lack of one. The book on which the film is based stops short of 'The Verdict' of the title being given, and if the film does have a fault it's that it manufactures a conclusion that is too Hollywood to be believable, undoing the good work in 'keeping it real' that the previous two hours have achieved.

James Mason plays the formidable head of the opposing legal team, determined to quash any possible convictions

The transfer is slightly disappointing given the remit of this 'Cinema Reserve' series. The grain and general murkiness are clearly caused by the original shoot, but a professional digital restoration would have done something about the flecks and dust that mar the early part of the film. Admittedly this is the best shape we're going to see the film, but when you see restorations like Casablanca, Robin Hood or The Forbidden Planet you realise how completely meaningless the term 'digitally restored' can be as a measure of quality.

The extra's too prove somewhat thin. The commentary track on the main feature is rather falsely advertised as being 'by Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman' when, in fact, it is a Sidney Lumet one, with just a few minutes of taped Newman quotes being spliced into the track! Fortunately Lumet is a lively commentator, and has enough anecdotes at his beck-and-call to make the commentary a lively and interesting one, but nevetheless one can't help feeling cheated by the package's inflated claims as to Newman's involvement in the piece.

Charlotte Rampling plays the love interest who supports Newman during moments of self-doubt, but whose side is she really on?!

The most interesting featurette is the 'half hour' (actually 20 minutes when the American adverts that marred the original transmission are stripped out) Backstory which tells the history of the film, albeit with a certain air of condescension and general 'dumbing down' for the average American TV viewer. There are also four short featurettes that could really have been compiled into one Making of, featuring Lumet and Newman talking about the film, but these are so short that one suspects the addition of a second disc to the package is more about marketing and maintaining the illusion of value for money than necessity arising from the format's capacity. They make interesting viewing but don't really count above 'standard fare' where DVD extra's are concerned these days.

The Verdict is an interesting film, if only for the excellent performances from both Paul Newman and James Mason. However it's hard to imagine this being a film that purchasers will want to view multiple times, and as such it's a recommended rental rather than a purchase!

Newman was nominated for an oscar for his performance as lawyer Frank Galvin in 'The Verdict'

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