In all the tributes over this past week to Sidney Lumet, many have cited Lumet’s strong track record of guiding his actors to exceptional, even iconic performances. While Al Pacino’s work in Lumet’s “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” may be the most famous examples of this, I don’t think any of Lumet’s lead actors was ever better than Paul Newman as a down and out alcoholic Boston lawyer in “The Verdict.”
“The Verdict’s” success is due to the remarkable collaboration between Lumet, Newman and David Mamet, who wrote the script. Mamet’s screenplay takes what could have been either a run of the mill redemption story or courtroom drama and finds those keen details that Lumet and his cast bring to life brilliantly. There are those little moments, like Frank Galvin (Newman) sipping his shot of whiskey off of the bar, too shaky to dare risk raising it to his lips that make the bigger ones, like his argument in chambers with a corrupt judge (Milo O’Shea), or his stunning summation really pay off.
Newman doesn’t just play a drunk; he captures a drunk’s self-loathing, his fear, his shame and ultimately, the slow rekindling of his pride and the attendant panic that it may be too late. The supporting cast around Newman, including Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling, Edward Binns, and particularly the great James Mason performs at the same high level.
Looking at the summation speech, I was struck by Lumet’s quiet but incredibly effective technique. The scene is one, long interrupted take. The camera holds the wide shot for a full two minutes, only moving when Newman approaches the jury box. Then slowly, it moves in on Newman, as his speech draws us in deeper, as if we are the jurors. Lumet’s decision to use one long take allows Newman to build up slowly, to really let Mamet’s words create the true force of their meaning. He finishes, and slumps back into his seat. We can sense the physical and emotional exhaustion of both the character and the actor.
Lumet, Newman and Mamet were all nominated for Academy Awards for “The Verdict.” None of them won.