The Verdict (1982)

“Why are you doing this?”

“To do the right thing.  Isn’t that why you’re doing it?”

So I’ve decided to review movies in reverse order by decade, starting with Erin Brockovich (2000-09), moving then to A Few Good Men (1990-99), and now to the 80s with The Verdict.  The next movie will be from the 70s, a decade I had no part of and won’t take the blame for, so I welcome suggestions.

Expectations officially lowered.

We’ll see if the cycle repeats after I hit the 50s, or if I just go random after that (again, suggestions welcomed.)

Anyhoo, this was the second time I’ve seen The Verdict, but I really didn’t remember the details (my wife did and totally ruined it about 34 minutes in, but I digress.)  Paul Newman and his steely blue eyes play out-of-luck trial lawyer, Frank Galvin.  Galvin’s life has been spiraling out of control for awhile.  He’s an alcoholic, smokes, physically abusive, and spends his sober moments wallowing in self-pity.  Also, he’s addicted to pinball.

Unemployment would rock if I owned one of these.

Now I know first-hand how unemployment isn’t exactly uplifting, but GOOD GOD this guy’s sadder than the guys who torched me in the comment section on Above the Law (see? I’m not actually above that.)  I mean, my wife has shouldered a lot of my “there’s no light!” moments in the last few months, but at least I’m not slurping down raw eggs at a pub for breakfast.  Even Rocky kept that in the privacy of his own home.

And now he's a judge.

Galvin’s been handed one last case by his only friend, and former law professor, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden).  It’s a medical malpractice suit and Mickey believes Galvin can pretty easily parlay it into a hefty settlement and retire off the contingency fee.  We’re talking $200k, apparently a fortune if you’re either living in 1982 or Dr. Evil.  Galvin’s on board with the plan.  The plaintiff’s family members — absolutely worn out after four years of watching their sister lie motionless in a vegetative coma — are on board.  And the defendants, a Church-sponsored hospital and two well respected doctors, are willing to pay to keep things quiet.

So why doesn’t this case settle?  Is it the doctor who first suggests to Galvin that his co-workers “murdered” the girl by giving her the wrong anesthetic?  Is it Galvin’s misguided attempt at personal redemption – his last chance at going all in instead of settling to live out the rest of his life?

Or maybe he's just stubborn?

I think there’s more going on here.  In a silent and odd scene, Galvin goes to photograph the victim prior to a pre-trial settlement conference.  He figures a few Polaroids will play on the defendants’ pathos and, maybe more effectively, their fear of a jury’s.  In the midst of shooting, Galvin stops and thereafter decides he’s going to represent the victim and not her family.  It’s actually pretty unfair; Galvin’s sort of indifferent to their plight throughout the movie, and assuming they’ve got a power of attorney to bring an action on her behalf (or something, someone help me out here), he is supposed to listen to them, or at the very least let them know about any settlement offers.

I made a similar point in my review of Erin Brockovich, but it came out again here.  Galvin is different from the victim’s family.  He hasn’t been there for four years, standing by her side and watching her slowly deteriorate.  That’s why he’s able see past the unfortunate fact that she’s so difficult to care for and instead see the tragedy that befell her.  Now, he can only guess as to whether she’d rather him fight at trial and try to bring these doctors to justice or just make things easier for her family. Honestly, I think he guesses wrong, but he does pick a side, and that’s the first thing he needs before deciding on whether to accept a settlement offer.

Summary Judgment: Alright, I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t do this movie justice.  There’s simply too much going on.  The dialogue is fantastic throughout (I found myself writing down every line) and the noir cinematography is stunning.  If you haven’t seen it, rent it.  If you have seen it, rent it.  There’s obviously more to say, so I’ll have to revisit this film in the future.  I haven’t even touched the trial or the supporting characters like Mickey or Ed Concannon (James Mason), the brilliant opposing counsel.  Again taking suggestions for the next movie in the comments bar — must be from the 70s, though.  Till’ next time, the keyboard is closed.


Filed under 1980-89, Settlements, Trial, Unemployment

20 responses to “The Verdict (1982)

  1. Mitch

    The Paper Chase! It’s awful, and technically, it’s about law school, not law, but it is from the 70s. The acting is terrible too. Then again, you’ve already lowered your expectations.

  2. Rachel

    Adam’s rib- 1949. One of my favorite movies!

  3. Rachel

    just to clarify- my comment above was in response to your line about law movies from the 50s and earlier.

  4. Your grandfather had a pinball machine. He probably pawned it. But those were good days!

  5. mkr

    I would never get anything done if I had a pinball machine. It’s hard enough with Tetris on my phone.

  6. Paul Newman’s portrayal of an attorney, conflicted between seeking justice or giving in to the demons, makes The Verdict my favorite lawyer movie. Yeah, he’s pretty much of a screw-up, but a ‘Hollywood ending’ works a cleansing more effective than AA mtgs or a dry cleaners.
    Wish they’d made a sequel, to show how he managed his life with money in his pockets. Justice or not: Newman did not win the Academy Award, because it went to Ben Kingsley playing a humanoid version of Yoda.

    • David

      I’m hoping he bought a pinball machine and lived happily ever after. But the final scene shows that at least his energy drink had changed. I actually wished the movie had ended ten minutes earlier, at the trial, and I’m thankful there aren’t many law movie sequels. Legally Blonde II did enough damage.

      My brother, the film buff/non-lawyer, believes that the real issue in this movie is how Galvin exploits the disconnect between the judge and the jury. That’s what I intend to focus on when I revisit The Verdict. It’s also what makes the “Hollywood ending” so important and arguably real.

      This is definitely one of my favorite Law Movies ever. I guess I’ll have to rent Ghandi one of these days to see why Paulie lost out.

      (On an unrelated note, apparently I published this post on Paul Newman’s birthday, so a belated happy birthday to you, Mr. Newman. How’s the pinball up in heaven?)

      • Nate Bishop

        Paul Newman was a great actor and seemed like he was a great man as well. And “The Verdict” was a great movie, period; not just a great legal movie. Who is carrying on Paul Newman’s legacy in present-day Hollywood? Maybe James Franco?

  7. David

    Sigh. I miss Freaks and Geeks.

  8. Famhealth

    A Man For All Seasons. I think it’s from the 70’s. At any rate the courtroom is ancient.

  9. A Man for All Seasons was 1966, I think. But it’s worth seeing, anyway.

  10. Pingback: The Verdict (1982) | The Law Movie Review | U.S. Justice Talk

  11. “The Verdict” is an enjoyable film, with a lot going for it, but it suffers from major flaws as well, particularly as they relate to the excessive dramatic license used. In the realm of high-stakes litigation such as a medical malpractice suit against a major hospital, the plaintiff doesn’t get to switch expert witnesses literally on the eve of trial. If you’re expert dies or takes a powder, and you haven’t preserved his testimony with a deposition, you’re literally at the mercy of the judge, and the Judge Hoyle of this movie would have no pangs of conscience were he to deny any request for an adjournment of the trial, causing the case to die on the vine. The trial preparation scene in which James Mason is briefing literally a room full of eager young associates is equally absurd; at most, the Concannon character would have three or four minions helping him. And the notion that the Concannon firm would pay Charlotte Rampling’s character for spying on Frank Galvin with a check—you’ve got to be kidding! It’s not terribly surprising that these glaring shortcomings would largely get ignored, given that the able but vastly overrated screenwriter David Mamet has largely been invulnerable to criticism for much of his career. These two shortcomings could have easily been avoided in the hands of a more inventive screenwriter, and had that been accomplished, the result would have been a truly great film, not merely a near great. I suppose that as a practicing lawyer, my view of legal movies, novels and TV shows is jaundiced, but more often than not , the mass entertainment media relies on silly embellishments to lend a false air of verisimilitude to its depictions of lawyers, clients, courts, witnesses and the rest of the characters. Case in point: the venerable “L.A. Law” television show that opened each episode with a hopelessly contrived “firm meeting” that served to introduce the plots that were about to start spinning. For more examples, ask any lawyer friend for his opinion on the latest John Grishman novel. Having said all this, I still consider “The Verdict” to be a fascinating film that bears repeat viewings, but nobody should ever think that what it depicts is anything close to reality.

  12. william mays

    Speaking of The Verdict, I happen to think its one of Newman’s best, including The Sting and Cool Hand Luke, but I wondered about that part of the trial when Lindsay Crouse’s testimony-as well as her document copy-are ruled inadmissible; yet the jury believes her that the doctor coerced her into changing the original document, and the award on behalf of the victim is huge. But wouldn’t a judge have overturned that verdict? Is that a possible outcome under Massachussetts law? And wouldn’t an appeal have overturned the verdict anyway? By the end of the movie, the notion of the mistrial (based on James Mason’s planting the female mole) is lost-what outcomes would that have produced?

    • John A. Streby

      Of course, Judge Hoyle would have overturned the verdict. Anyone who thinks that any corrupt, arrogant judge like
      the character in “The Verdict” would have the humility to admit that he was wrong about Galvin and his client is dreaming. I repeat my belief that excessive dramatic license is a symptom of mediocre screenwriting. All lawyers (myself included) have dealt with the Judge Hoyles of the world, who are typically good old boys who got their jobs because of politics, not merit; and who in this case probably got political help from Concannon and his well-connected, moneyed law firm. A private lawyer without political connections, going up against a big, prestigious law firm, with an elitist judge presiding, is doomed. Had I been hired as the screenwriter for “The Verdict,” I would have figured out a way to enable Galvin and his client to win without the use of plot contrivances. But like Frank Galvin, I don’t have the same connections that screenwriter David Mamet has.

      • Hoyle couldn’t have “overturned” the verdict. If judges had that power, what purpose would a jury have in the legal system? I suppose there could be an appeal, and an appellate court would look at it, but even there, Galvin would have won because of the egregious behavior by the judge. A judge can’t cross examine a plaintiff’s witness, defining a narrow scope for an answer, and then having him make an expert opinion based on the restrictive question. Also, Costello’s testimony would have been found to have been improperly excluded by Hoyle, and the jury would have been allowed to consider it. The “best evidence rule” objection is a joke in light of credible testimony that the original had been altered to avoid liability. Any judge stacking the deck so favorably for one side would have been ridden out on a rail by a judicial conduct committee and the appellate courts. As a lawyer, judges doing that makes me want to scream. It was tough watching that last part of the movie.

    • Gus

      The movie is based on a honest to goodnes real case.

      • If Lindsay Crouse’s testimony and the altered medical record were stricken, to the extent that the jury verdict for the plaintiff RELIED on that testimony and that document—that is, if they supplied an essential element of proof that no other evidence, argument nor permissible inference supplied—then the verdict would be subject to a post-trial motion for judgment non obstanto verdicto (judgment notwithstanding the verdict). But before the case even went to the jury, Concannon would have moved for a directed verdict, and based on the way Judge Hoyle is portrayed, he would have granted it. When I began practicing law in the late 1970s, pretrial motions to dismiss were rarely granted in civil cases, and such motions were generally disfavored. Now, things have changed 180 degrees, and it is extraordinarily difficult to beat such motions—you have to have a very clear chain of logic, supported by proof that witnesses, especially expert witnesses, will testify as claimed. Again, I take serious issue with the dramatic license used by screenwriter David Mamet in “The Verdict.” I have written two novels that deal with courts and lawyers, and I consider it my job as a novelist to have a solid grounding in reality on such things as the rules of evidence and trial procedure. The last John Grisham book I read was sorely deficient in that department, but he has such a cult following that he needn’t worry about factual accuracy. By the way, Lindsay Crouse is the daughter of playwrite Russel Crouse, who named her after his writing partner, Howard Lindsay, just as the creators of “The Big Bang Theory” TV show named the characters Sheldon and Leonard after the great Sheldon Leonard.

  13. A great deal of idealism is evident in your comment. Sadly, my own idealism has gradually been eroded by a long series of career episodes in which I assumed “they can’t do that,” only to be proven wrong again and again. As I see it (and some disagree), the court system, at least where I practice law, is run primarily for the convenience of the judges. Accountability is hit or miss. Appellate courts generally bend over backwards to affirm the rulings of the trial judge. The path to a judgeship lies in politics, not career excellence. And this “judicial conduct committee” that you mention—there is no such animal in Michigan, where the state supreme court makes the final decision on all judicial misconduct matters, after an initial hearing before a special master. Other states may be different. And finally, there was no explanation in “The Verdict” on how Galvin was allowed to switch expert witnesses at the last minute as he did. Assuming (as we must) that Concannon objected to the switch, Judge Hoyle would have either sustained the objection or taken it under advisement, hoping that a jury verdict against Galvin’s client would make the issue moot. But the $600,000 verdict made the issue very important, and I repeat, Judge Hoyle would have sustained the objection, then stricken the expert’s testimony, then granted a judgment non obstanto verdicto. David Mamet should have consulted with a trial lawyer when he wrote the screenplay, and some way could have been found to avoid such a glaring dramatic leap of faith.

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