No Overturning Lumet’s ‘Verdict’

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The New York Sun

Almost all films are bound to genres. The ones that stand out either subvert generic conventions or burnish them with stylish resourcefulness. Two very different examples come to DVD this week: A Spanish horror film from 1976, “Who Can Kill a Child?,” makes its debut, and Sidney Lumet’s justly celebrated “The Verdict” graduates to a double-disc collector’s edition.

The latter actually married two genres: courtroom drama and lost-soul-seeking-salvation, an unbeatable combination. A hit in 1982, “The Verdict” has enjoyed a robust post-theatrical life, its critical and popular acclimation boosted by countless television broadcasts.

Yet it may be the last major Hollywood film made with little or no concern for home video, neither the then-burgeoning VHS phenomenon nor television itself. It is a movie made for movie theaters, shot with muted colors in long, medium-distance takes, frequently involving two characters in conversation as a third stands apart, silently observing. Mr. Lumet’s stylistic panache invites the viewer to watch involving tableaux in which environment is crucial. No gratuitous reaction shots or musical cues interrupt to tell us what to think or how to feel; the judicious use of close-ups is almost Bressonian in its economy and control.

The remarkable thing about “The Verdict” is that it claims our attention at all, given the ordinary nature of its premise. A lawyer, blinking his way through the hell of alcoholic dissolution, takes an impossible case against the Archdiocese of Boston, the hospital it runs, a corrupt judge, and a legal firm that operates along the lines of the KGB. It will come as no surprise that the lawyer and justice prevail. Haven’t we seen this film a hundred times in the 80 years since Theodore Dreiser raised the stakes for the American courtroom thriller? Yes and no. Most have faded away, while “The Verdict,” along with Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) and few others, stands its ground.

Everything works, despite a few six-lane plot holes, and it’s the sheer filming joy of talented people working at the peak of their powers that brings us back to the plight of Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), his treacherous lover Laura (Charlotte Rampling), his protective friend Mickey (Jack Warden), and the opposing attorney (James Mason), whom Mickey characterizes as the prince of bleeping darkness. Mr. Lumet’s long history of capturing unflinchingly original, inspired performances has achieved no greater pinnacle than his work here. Mr. Mason’s timing, silences, and dynamics in support of memorably skewered line readings brings Ed Concannon, the satanic counsel, to life with so much energy that we forgive him his trespasses.

Ms. Rampling, whose facial bones enact mini-dramas that echo the lines she doesn’t have, is the most touchingly defective femme fatale in memory. Warden’s Mickey, Lindsay Crouse’s witness, Milo Fine’s judge, and Julie Bovasso’s nurse, among others, give performances with no false bottoms, all in support of David Mamet’s eloquently elliptical dialog and the lead performance by Mr. Newman, which makes the plot holes almost immaterial.

Much as great homely actors can make their features light up with sexual appeal, handsome ones may allow their features to congeal with failure and decay, and makeup has nothing to do with it. Mr. Newman’s chiseled good looks sag. He emits seediness in his posture and walk, slow death in his pallor, hygienic indifference in his long and matted hair and greedy inhaling of a Breathalyzer. All this sounds like technique, but it doesn’t look or feel like it. When Galvin is thrown out of a funeral, he turns toward the camera, one brow lifted, the face frozen for a few seconds like a mask gone awry, the famous face distorted. As he takes hold of himself, the features snap back into formation, but never in a way to indicate contrivance. A certain dissonance remains until the end.

Mr. Lumet, in his commentary, credits the actors and the writing for most of the film’s felicities, but “The Verdict” is a director’s movie first and last, and in a way that we are not likely to see any time soon. The opening credits are scored to the sounds of a pinball machine, as Galvin plays disconsolately, his profile framed by a window. There is no music at all for the first four and a half minutes, only the ambient sounds of bereavement, and when John Mandell’s concise brass chords are finally heard, they are neutrally transitional. Scene after scene is staged against windows, doors, under arches, and ornate staircases, and the big moments are daringly static. The camera awaits Galvin and Laura as they enter his apartment, waits as he turns on the light and they kiss — more than a minute passes before the first cut, which indicates an emotional change. Other key moments are related with parallel objects: a letter that reveals Laura’s perfidy followed by a letter that reveals Galvin’s identity to his witness.

The conference with Galvin, the judge, and Concannon is filmed as a three-shot, and when the judge taunts Galvin with a question, Mr. Lumet allows us to see the answer in the judge’s response — no need for a line or an insert of the star. The crucial scene in which Galvin attempts to cut a deal on the phone is handled in a single medium-distance fourminute take, and it is riveting. Today it would be cut eight different ways, with each telling gesture (i.e. Galvin’s what-the-hell shrug to Mickey) getting its own insert. Most impressive is Galvin’s summation: one camera movement that slowly descends from wide-view to a closeup of the lawyer, just before he turns from the jury and walks back to his seat. As the verdict is read, Mr. Lumet uses a short, virtuoso crane shot that quickly levels off as it zooms toward Galvin. “The Verdict” is one of those movies that are so smartly made that they invite rather than dictate the audience’s participation.

***

One can only imagine the meeting at which director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador pitched “Who Can Kill a Child?”:

“It’s a remake of ‘The Birds,’ only instead of birds, we use children.”

“Great! But how do you get them to perch on telephone wires?”

“Well, it won’t be an exact remake. We just use the idea of adorable, swarming children turning their parents into piñatas and destroying all adult life.”

This is one disturbing movie, previously shown here only in a version as violently butchered as the film’s victims. Again, two genres are merged, each reeking of postwar paranoia: The senselessly swarming enemy, as popularized in the tales of Leiningen’s ants, giant tarantulas, alien pods, and so forth, and brought to a boil in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963); and the beware-your-kids films that grew from “The Bad Seed” to “Village of the Damned” to “The Brood.”

A political framework is appended by way of grueling introductory footage showing atrocities perpetrated on children during the Holocaust and subsequent calamities, but the film is less intent on justifying the horrors that follow, at a Catalonian vacation resort, than raising the issue of how we handle the prospect of cuties with weapons — a theme that has grown strangely relevant with recent school shootings and the pre-adolescent assassins as depicted in last year’s “Blood Diamond.” Do we take preemptive action by herding them into camps, building walls around their rooms, offering them amnesty if they’ll turn in their guns and knives? In any case, this is a well-made and paced film, replete with nightmare images and denouement, though perhaps not the best choice for graduation week.

Mr. Giddins is the author of “Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books.”


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