The Verdict ★★★½

Often riveting, hugely implausible courtroom drama about a malpractice suit that brings a dishonored attorney from the brink of permanent despair and/or alcohol posioning is a triumph for director Sidney Lumet in its blocking, casting and beautifully claustrophobic visual sensibility, capturing what appears to be the coldest winter in Boston's history while placing a matching sensation of eerie coldness and detachment squarely in the heads of his characters. The rhythm of David Mamet's script is impeccable, with the audience's engagement directly mirrored by the protagonist's own attitue toward his life. It opens haphazardly with the lawyer Frank Galvin slumming, playing pinball, making a scheduled visit to a neighborhood bar and virtually tripping into an open-and-shut case of a young mother who was given the wrong anesthesia during a delivery, leaving her in a vegetative state and the baby stillborn. If anyone can fuck it up it's Galvin, and we spend much of the film discovering just how he fucks it up, while slowly the tension and moral gravity of the case itself begins to sweep us up along with him and he finds himself fighting for a trial instead of an easy settlement. But Mamet also wanders down some unsavory pathways, with undue contempt falling upon Charlotte Rampling as Frank's new girlfriend who takes a strong interest in his career; despite becoming something of a villain, she's subjected to cruelty by the character and film that feels pointlessly malicious, and if the sexism is insufficient there's also the skepticism afforded an expert witness who happens to be black. Maybe it's all just meant as dry social commentary but it's hard to then know how we're supposed to feel about our "hero" and his sudden decision that he has a moral obligation to his client, especially when said hero is portrayed by Paul Newman as a bizarre, badly judged series of tics and strange, dead-eyed facial expressions. I'm biased against Newman in the first place but I don't think he does well in the part regardless, and you can track this by watching Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling and James Mason -- each with a different style of acting, all of them more believable, less showy -- and noticing how they make him seem like a bit of a cartoon. He doesn't "act drunk" in the classical Fred Milland sense but there's still something in his performance that's crucially hard to accept as sincere. However, with Andrzej Bartkowiak's gorgeous, Gordon Willis-like photography and the surprising detective-story tension as the story mounts, this is still great fun despite the gaping hole in its center in the shape of a leading man.

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