Even when he switches the locale to Boston, Sidney Lumet remains a New York filmmaker making New York films. This makes The Verdict, with its script by Lumet and playwright David Mamet, an especially interesting film to use as a test of the analytic tools suggested in these pages. The elements of the conflicts that Lumet's characters undergo have been shaped by a New York consciousness. Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) wants to oppose the social structures, while needing to be part of them in order to survive. The system has its own rules to safeguard its own survival and will take extraordinary measures to protect its own interests, even if it means destroying those who oppose it, even to the point of destroying its own. Galvin's adversaries include both the legal system, as represented by one of the most powerful lawyers in Boston, Edward Concannon (James Mason), who represents Galvin's ultimate adversary, the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. In this film, as is so often the case in Lumet's films, the WASP elite scarcely exists. This conflict is purely an internal matter for tribal chieftains. The oppressive majority consists of entrenched Irish Catholics, the old guard, and for the first time Lumet makes the official Church part of the mix.
Galvin grew up as part of the system. He's Boston Irish in ancestry and a graduate of Boston College Law School, a Catholic and Jesuit institution that boasts of its Irish origins. He was second in his class and an editor of the Law Review, and he began a brilliant career in one of the major firms in town. As a junior associate, he was falsely accused of jury tampering and took responsibility to save one of the partners. The firm reneged on its promises of reinstatement and compensation and released him. Galvin avoided jail time and disbarment, but his reputation was tarnished, his career ruined, and his marriage destroyed. Stereotypically for an Irish American, Galvin sought solace in the bottle. In the grim opening sequence, Lumet shows Galvin at midday, alone in a working-class bar, playing a pinball machine whose random bounces suggest the unpredictable and pointless changes of direction his life has taken. He circles names in the obituary pages and drinks while he waits for the afternoon viewing hours to begin and then makes the rounds of funeral parlors, introducing himself as an old friend of the deceased and giving his card to the grieving widow in case she might need his services. It has come to this. He is worse than an ambulance chaser; he is a hearse chaser. Despite his desperate efforts, he has not had a case in over a year. In the evenings, he returns to the bar, very much at home drinking and exchanging crude jokes with the working men of the neighborhood. Despite his white shirt and necktie, Galvin is still one of the boyos.
An old friend with a suitably Irish name, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden), does him a favor by passing along a clear-cut medical negligence case with the expectation that an out-of-court settlement will allow Galvin to collect his percentage without risking the embarrassment of appearing in a courtroom impaired by drink. Kevin and Sally Doneghy (James Handy and Roxanne Hart) have sued to collect damages from a hospital after a botched anesthetic left Sally's sister in a vegetative state. The Doneghys have few resources and need the money for her long-term care. Kevin has the opportunity to take a better job in
Arizona, but without the legal compensation, they will have to stay in Boston and help with the sick woman's care.
A cash, out-of-court settlement, it seems, will suit everyone's best interests: the Doneghys as well as the doctors at St. Catherine Labore's and the Archdiocese of Boston, which operates the hospital. Avoiding the negative publicity about this tragedy is worth the price, even if the doctors were not negligent, as they claim. Bishop Brophy (Edward Binns) wants to offer the check personally to the Doneghys' attorney as a sign of the Church's compassion for the family after this terrible accident.26 All Galvin has to do is show up in the bishop's office and accept a check for $210,000, one-third of which he will be able to keep as his fee. Just to go through the motions, as though trying to prove to Concannon that he is still considering going to trial, he interviews a doctor who tells him it was negligence, not an accident. He visits the comatose woman in her grim hospital ward and takes Polaroid photos of her for his files. In a fine cinematic touch, Lumet adopts Galvin's point of view as he watches her image emerge on the film. Galvin's vision suddenly becomes clear as he sees her come into focus as a person and a victim. The price the archdiocese has put on her life seems far too low, and the thought of allowing the doctors and the Church to avoid responsibility irks him. Galvin decides to reject the offer despite the possibility that he and the Doneghys will lose everything if the jury decides against him.
The contest is not fair. Once engaged in battle, the Church's legal team, with its array of bright young associates and researchers, will stop at nothing to cover up the crime. Galvin's key witness, the doctor who first raised the question of criminal negligence, apparently changes (or was persuaded to change) his mind and leaves the country before the deposition, leaving Morrissey to speculate that "Concannon got to him." The judge (Milo O'Shea), ironically named Hoyle after the author of the book on fair play, is a crony of Concannon's and denies Galvin's request for a delay to allow him to track down his witness. During the trial, Hoyle consistently overrules Galvin's objections, disallows testimony, and at one point even joins in the cross-examination that discredits Galvin's only witness, a seventy-four-year-old anesthesiologist of mediocre training and experience, who, as it turns out, supports himself by testifying in malpractice suits. Galvin had found his name in a directory. The witness, Dr. Lionel Thompson (Joe Seneca), is African
American, and when he appears on the scene, Lumet has Morrissey make the stereotypical Irish comment: "At least he's not a Jew."
In a subplot sewn together of improbable coincidences, Concannon successfully plants an assistant on Galvin's team, the beautiful Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling), who insinuates her way into Galvin's personal life. Her job is to pass along information about Galvin's case that she gains during exchanges of pillow talk, which flows freely after several rounds of drinks, which she seems to enjoy, or need, as much as Galvin. Concannon has secured her cooperation in this sleazy mission by offering her his help in returning to legal practice after an unsuccessful marriage. Her ethical scruples, such as they are, threaten to surface as she grows in both respect and affection for Frank Galvin, but in the end, they don't deter her. She wants Concannon's check and a job.
Like Sean Casey in Night Falls on Manhattan, Galvin is forced to seek justice in the gray area of the law. Clearly desperate after the slick, beautifully coached testimony of Dr. Robert Towler (Wesley Addey), the physician who administered the anesthetic, Galvin rests his last hope on finding the admitting nurse, who has left Boston. The other nurses, like the New York police, have their own white wall of silence to protect their own, the hospital, and their jobs. Galvin, who has posed as "an old friend" of deceased strangers in the hope of getting a job, doesn't hesitate to continue violating ethical standards by claiming various identities as he and Morrissey work through the phone book searching for clues about the former nurse. Perhaps his own brush with disbarment and jail have given him a sense of cynicism about the fine points of the law. At the end, he gains key information by criminally breaking into a mailbox and stealing a phone bill that leads him to the elusive witness. His tactics work. Kaitlin Costello Price (Lindsay Crouse), the former admitting nurse, agrees to testify in court and to produce the altered document, which she has saved in case she had to defend her own innocence one day. In triumph, Galvin leads the witness through the events that led to the fatal procedure and the subsequent cover-up, but because of a technicality that Concannon's high-powered research team presents to the court, Hoyle instructs the jury to disallow Galvin's evidence and the nurse's testimony. Galvin is stunned. He cannot overcome this rejection of his last bit of evidence. In his summation, however, Galvin tells the jury to ignore Hoyle's instructions and follow their own intuitive path to justice, even though it strays from letter of the law.
The jury supports Galvin and the Doneghys. Even in victory, however, Galvin has separated himself from his roots, and ultimately, at best he has fought to a tie. All his adult life, he wanted to be a successful lawyer, but by winning according to his own rules, he has set himself apart from the legal establishment (dominated in Boston by the likes of Hoyle and Concannon) and its client, the Archdiocese of Boston (as represented by Bishop Brophy). To emphasize Galvin's aloneness, Laura Fischer stands on the far side of the courthouse stairwell as he and Morrissey descend the main staircase to savor their victory. She may have some regrets, but she has no words of repentance, nor he of forgiveness. He merely glances up, sees her, and walks on. Lumet knows too much about life in the city to end his story of urban corruption with a movie cliché involving reconciliation. Later, Galvin sits in his cluttered office drinking coffee when the phone rings. Laura lies on a rumpled bed with an open whisky bottle on her night table. The phone rings and rings, but Galvin refuses to answer it. Perhaps at the end of his day of triumph he will find companionship only with the men in flannel shirts who gather in a neighborhood bar. He has chosen to be alone with his moral standards; Laura is condemned to remain alone with hers.
The legal establishment and the Church will go on, as they have for years, despite this temporary defeat. Lumet's Boston, like his New York, is simply too big, too powerful, to change. The best one can hope for is to avoid being ground down by it.
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