Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a once prosperous and idealistic Boston lawyer, is a loser. Years ago he was used as a scapegoat by his crooked senior partner, and although he was eventually cleared of any charges, his wife left him and his name remains dirt among his peers. He's become an ambulance chaser, forced to seek out clients at funerals and wakes. His only solace in life comes from playing pinball and drinking.
Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden), Frank's mentor and lone friend, throws him a case that promises to earn him some easy money. Sally Doneghy's pregnant sister was admitted to St. Catherine's Hospital and, in the operating room, was given the wrong anesthetic. She is permanently comatose a vegetable. Sally and her husband Kevin have brought a medical malpractice suit against the doctors involved, the hospital, and the Catholic diocese which operates it.
Galvin barely pulls himself together to do his research. A first stop is the nursing home where the young woman is maintained on a life support system. There, while taking pictures to use to seal an out-of-court settlement, he realizes the enormity of the crime committed against her. Later, in Judge Hoyle's (Milo O'Shea) chambers, Galvin refuses an offer of $210,000 from Ed Concannon (James Mason), the defense lawyer, and announces he wants to take the case to trial. The Judge is shocked by this decision. His clients are angered.
To Galvin's dismay, his case begins disintegrating before his eyes. A doctor, who had agreed to give expert testimony about medical negligence, is bought off by Concannon and goes on a Caribbean holiday. A nurse, who knows what really happened in the operating room, refuses to testify for either side. A black doctor is brought in at the last moment by Galvin, but his credibility is questioned when he admits that he often earns money giving testimony in malpractice cases.
Concannon, a famous attorney whom Mickey has labeled "the prince of darkness," lives up to the title. Before the case ever gets to court, he and his ambitious young legal assistants launch a major effort to insure a win for the doctors, the hospital, and the diocese. They plant a newspaper article about St. Catherine's contributions to the community. They arrange for one of the doctors involved to appear on television discussing his textbook on anesthesiology. They then coach his testimony so that he will appear to the jury not only as an expert, but close to a saint. They prepare devastating cross-examinations, and even hire a spy to keep an eye on Galvin's research.
The screen play for The Verdict by playwright David Mamet is intelligent, poetic, and complex. Adapted from a novel by lawyer Barry Reed, it takes a hard look at the human havoc wrought by institutional incompetence and corruption; it examines the ways in which professionals abuse those whom they serve; and it puts forth the value of idealism in a world tainted by cynicism.
Paul Newman, in an Academy Award caliber performance, is completely convincing as Frank Galvin. In the opening scenes of the film, he is a man at the end of his rope, without hope or any purpose in living. Buoyed up by the decision to take this case to court, he soon finds himself in desperate straits. In one scene, he is overwhelmed by the forces aligned against him and hides shaking in a bathroom. But he knows in his soul that it is now or never. He and Mickey stay up all night tracking down a key witness. Frank makes a hurried trip to New York City where a woman who may hold the key to the truth has settled down to a new life.
Sidney Lumet (the standout director of The Pawnbroker, Serpico, The Prince of the City) draws out top-drawer performances from the entire cast, especially Jack Warden as Mickey Morrissey, James Mason as the egregiously amoral Concannon, Milo O'Shea as the prejudiced Judge Hoyle, and Lindsay Crouse as the mystery woman in New York.
The courtroom scenes in this Richard D. Zanuck/David Brown production are riveting. The artful cinematography of Andrzej Bartkowiak accents the film's theme of the forces of light doing battle against the forces of darkness.
Newman's ethically eloquent and quietly intense closing speech to the jury is so compelling that it will take your breath away.