A woman is permanently comatose and must remain in a hospital for the remainder of her life as the result of her physician’s negligence.
The relatives want a settlement to secure the comatose woman’s care and for their own future financial security; the doctor’s are concerned with their future careers—or lack of—if they are found negligent; the church is concerned with the future of the hospital and its reputation; the attorney’s on both sides share each of their respective clients concerns for the future; the judge is concerned with being re-elected.
The very nature of the trial is to not take things at face value—even the sterling and unblemished reputations of the physicians may be found, upon re-evaluation, to be flawed.
The Catholic church, which owns and runs the hospital where the woman was vegetized and remains bedridden, does not believe their physicians made any mistake to cause the woman’s condition; the physicians do not believe they have done anything wrong; the defense law firm does not believe it can possibly lose the case; the judge does not believe the case should even be brought to court; no one believes that the prosecuting attorney (Frank) could possibly win a court case.
Despite the illegal dealings of the defense team, the unjust behavior of the judge, the credibility problems of the defense “expert,” etc., the jury accepts there was a wrongdoing by the defendants without certain proof of their guilt and correctly finds them guilty.
Frank reconsiders settling the case out of court after he sees the condition of the comatose woman; the doctor that agrees to testify for the prosecution reconsiders and leaves on “vacation” after the defense team gets to him; Frank reconsiders trying the case after his expert witness disappears; Laura reconsiders passing along information to the defense team after she determines that Frank cannot possibly win; the judge reconsiders what is admissible evidence after it has been presented and disallows the most damning witness to the defense.
Should the case be settled out of court for $200,00 or risk a trial with the potential for a greater financial settlement? Should Frank even risk going to court considering his past record and reputation? Should the church risk the possible tarnishing of itself, the reputation of its doctors and the reputation of the hospital, or should it concede to a higher settlement price? Should the senior nurse divulge the whereabouts of the admitting nurse or protect her anonymity? Should the prosecution reveal the illegal practices of the defense team and risk a repeat “reversal,” or proceed with its amazingly weak case?
Frank’s procrastination introduces him to the case on the eve of its decision date; Frank asks for an extension or delay in the proceedings and the judge (in accordance with the defense team) forces the trial to start five days early without the possibility of a continuance; the more Frank tries to delay, the more everybody wants it over and done with.
The church and defense team believe that if they hold out with a settlement price of $200,000 the prosecution will take it and the whole thing will be over—however, Frank sees big dollar signs so the case goes to trial which slows down the closure of the affair; Frank’s “dream” girl Laura makes what would have been a simple case into a terribly difficult one by revealing to the defense team who the prosecution’s expert witness is and other key information; Frank bogs down the trial by attempting to make his hack expert witness appear to be competent—an attempt that is easily shot down by the defense; the admitting nurse’s dream of what it would be like to spend her life as a nurse is dashed and is the reason her identity is withheld.
Frank must find out what REALLY happened to Deborah Ann Kay; the more truth about what happened the night she was admitted into the hospital and the subsequent events that is found out, the closer to the solution of the case.
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There is a moment in "The Verdict" when Paul Newman walks into a room and shuts the door and trembles with anxiety and with the inner scream that people should get off his back. No one who has ever been seriously hung over or needed a drink will fail to recognize the moment. It is the key to his character in "The Verdict," a movie about a drinking alcoholic who tries to pull himself together for one last step at salvaging his self-esteem.
Newman plays Frank Galvin, a Boston lawyer who has had his problems over the years - a lost job, a messy divorce, a disbarment hearing, all of them traceable in one way or another to his alcoholism. He has a "drinking problem," as an attorney for the archdiocese delicately phrases it. That means that he makes an occasional guest appearance at his office, and spends the rest of his day playing pinball and drinking beer, and his evening drinking Irish and looking to see if there isn't at least one last lonely woman in the world who will buy his version of himself in preference to the facts.
Galvin's pal, a lawyer named Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) has drummed up a little work for him: An open-and-shut malpractice suit against a Catholic hospital in Boston where a young woman was carelessly turned into a vegetable because of a medical oversight. The deal is pretty simple. Galvin can expect to settle out of court and pocket a third of the settlement - enough to drink on for what little future he is likely to enjoy.
But Galvin makes the mistake of going to see the young victim in a hospital, where she is alive but in a coma. And something snaps inside of him. He determines to try this case, by god, and to prove that the doctors who took her mind away from her were guilty of incompetence and dishonesty. In Galvin's mind, bringing this case to court is one and the same thing with regaining his self-respect - with emerging from his own alcoholic coma.
Galvin's redemption takes place within the framework of a courtroom thriller. The screenplay by David Mamet is a wonder of good dialogue, strongly seen characters and a structure that pays off in the big courtroom scene - as the genre requires. As a courtroom drama, "The Verdict" is superior work. But the director and the star of this film, Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman, seem to be going for something more; "The Verdict" is more a character study than a thriller, and the buried suspense in this movie is more about Galvin's own life than about his latest case.
Frank Galvin provides Newman with the occasion for one of his great performances. This is the first movie in which Newman has looked a little old, a little tired. There are moments when his face sags and his eyes seem terribly weary, and we can look ahead clearly to the old men he will be playing in 10 years' time. Newman always has been an interesting actor, but sometimes his resiliency, his youthful vitality, have obscured his performances; he has a tendency to always look great, and that is not always what the role calls for. This time, he gives us old, bone-tired, hung-over, trembling (and heroic) Frank Galvin, and we buy it lock, stock and shot glass.
The movie is populated with finely tuned supporting performances (many of them by British or Irish actors, playing Bostonians not at all badly). Jack Warden is the old law partner; Charlotte Rampling is the woman, also an alcoholic, with whom Galvin unwisely falls in love; James Mason is the ace lawyer for the archdiocese; Milo O'Shea is the politically connected judge; Wesley Addy provides just the right presence as one of the accused doctors. The performances, the dialogue and the plot all work together like a rare machine.
But it's that Newman performance that stays in the mind. Some reviewers have found "The Verdict" a little slow moving, maybe because it doesn't always hum along on the thriller level. But if you bring empathy to the movie, if you allow yourself to think about what Frank Galvin is going through, there's not a moment of this movie that's not absorbing. "The Verdict" has a lot of truth in it, right down to a great final scene in which Newman, still drinking, finds that if you wash it down with booze, victory tastes just like defeat.