Paul Newman was so handsome and so charming that you could forgive him for just about anything. From the very start of his career, he played con men, hustlers, bank robbers, ruffians, drunkards, and criminals. It’s hard to think of another actor from that era who managed to become so admired by embodying such unadmirable people. But while many of Newman’s characters were losers or cheats, they always had a certain electric verve jolting through them, lighting up those steely blue eyes and beaming out to the audience. These men were alive.
Not so in The Verdict (1982, 2 hrs., 9 mins., R), which comes out on Blu-ray May 7 and features the most impressive performance the acting giant ever gave. As Frank Galvin, a lawyer whose career has dissolved in the bottom of a shot glass, Newman extinguishes the twinkle in his eye. Unlike Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there’s nothing romantic about Galvin’s alcoholism, or about him. Once a promising legal mind, he has been reduced to a hearse chaser fishing for clients at funerals, his only victories coming from the pinball machine at his local haunt. That is, until he’s extended a lifeline in the form of a malpractice suit for a young girl who was accidentally placed in an irreversible vegetative state. Galvin grabs on to it, refusing an out-of-court settlement from the hospital and its high-priced defense attorney (James Mason) and taking the case to trial. Newman gets no rousing speeches, no heartbreaking monologues; his closing argument is a despairing, rambling beseechment for justice, far from the typical courtroom catharsis. The performance is all internal detonations and quiet determination.
Newman is aided by David Mamet’s morally complex script and superb direction by Sidney Lumet, one of Hollywood’s greatest actor’s directors. (An engaging commentary from the director numbers among the EXTRAS held over from a previous DVD release.) Lumet launched his film career with the legal classic 12 Angry Men, but in The Verdict the man in question isn’t so much angry as resigned. Winning can’t save the girl, and it’s unclear whether Galvin is even doing the right thing by rejecting the settlement. But Newman’s powerful turn walks the line between pathetic and sympathetic so well that you sit transfixed. He won an Oscar a few years later for The Color of Money, but if you were presenting a case for Newman’s legacy of acting brilliance, this film would be exhibit A.