I am republishing this entry in recognition of Paul Newman’s passing on September 26. When I was a senior in high school, he and his wife came to shoot the Merchant-Ivory film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in Kansas City. I never got close to the production, but many of my friends from school got involved. Some appeared as extras, while others had their homes used by the production. Throughout the weeks that he was in KC, the town was totally gaga. Everybody had their own personal Paul Newman sighting story. It’s a great memory. I want to enclose this quote of his from the New York Times obituary. “We are such spendthrifts with our lives,” Mr. Newman once told a reporter. “The trick of living is to slip on and off the planet with the least fuss you can muster. I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”
The Verdict is a movie I find myself going back to again and again. It’s a classic story of redemption, skillfully woven by David Mamet. Paul Newman is at the height of his abilities, and Sidney Lumet directs the film with a very light touch. Many of the scenes are shot in one long continuous take. The camera is simple, never obtrusive.
There is an important moment in the first half of the film, and I want to talk about it as a fine piece of filmmaking. It is the moment in the film where Frank Galvin decides that he is going to do the right thing.
Quick recap on the plot: Galvin is a drunk lawyer who has not won a case in many years. His buddy (Jack Warden) has set him up with an easy win – a malpractice case where he just has to shut up and settle out of court.
But then something funny happens.
As he is photographing his client, a woman who is now a vegetable after being given the wrong anesthetic, he has a change of heart. In the beginning of the scene, he is there to take pictures of the woman as a way to create sympathy with his adversary. This way, they will be sure to settle out of court and he will get his easy money. But in taking these pictures, he takes the time to really see her and to consider the situation. By the end of the scene, he has decided he will defend this woman.
How to convey this reversal? Lumet makes a great choice – using polaroids in the scene. Galvin snaps two pictures and places them on the hospital bed. Then he looks at her. As he looks at her, we cut to the bed with the pictures slowly developing before our eyes. The shot lasts quite a while. We, like Galvin, watch the pictures develop. And once they have developed, we cut back to Frank. Not in a close up, but a medium shot. He is looking at her, and it is clear that he is affected by her. He stays in his thoughts even while a nurse comes to tell him he is not allowed in the room. In a daze, he snaps out of it enough to say, “I’m her attorney.” In that moment, he indeed becomes her attorney.
It is a brilliant beginning of Frank’s transformation and it is done with almost no words.
Watch this movie and tell me what you think.