‘The Verdict’: Sidney Lumet and David Mamet’s Masterpiece as a Blend of a Courtroom Drama and a Personal Redemption Story

Frank Galvin is an empty, whisky-drenched shell of a man. Once a successful lawyer at a prestigious law firm, a dedicated professional whose life was turned upside down by an incident he might have been framed for by a competitive colleague, he now spends his days playing pinball, drinking beer and only occasionally stopping by his office. His whole legal practice is reduced to stalking funeral parlors for clients, like a desperate vulture, searching for cases that would help him acquire more money to spend on booze and pinball. Galvin is a man who has practically given up, on the verge of squandering all of his once great potential, a man with a horrendous reputation, no ambition outside of the local bar, and only one ally in the whole world—an old mentor and former teacher Mickey, who still sends simple cases his way, perhaps to help him cope with his miserable life, perhaps to try to snap him out of his alcoholic stupor. When Mickey sets him up with a clear-and-shut case of medical malpractice, where a young woman was condemned to a vegetative state by doctors of a renowned hospital run by the Archdiocese of Boston, Galvin approaches the precipice: the Church is eager to settle out of court for a respectable sum to keep its reputation intact, and Galvin would have to be crazy to turn down a fee that would enable him to drink himself to death. However, a brief visit to the hospital complicates the situation for him, as the sight of a girl whose life is over forces him to become reborn as the man who he’d long forgotten to be. My short synopsis most likely doesn’t do justice to The Verdict, the great Sidney Lumet’s film often hailed as one of the best courtroom dramas ever made, but the very fact I chose to concentrate more on the protagonist than the legal case that may or may not turn his life around testifies to what kind of a film this really is. The filmmaker who made 12 Angry Men sure knows how to create a courtroom masterpiece; The Verdict, on the other hand, is much more a film in the vein of a character study, where the court serves as the arena for the transformation of a ruined individual, or, if you prefer clumsy metaphors, a delivery room for the main hero’s rebirth. Based on American trial lawyer and bestselling author Barry Reed’s 1980s novel of the same name, allegedly inspired by real-life events he witnessed to during his career of a legal practitioner, The Verdict was written by David Mamet, the masterful playwright and screenwriter who gave us such classics as The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross, and after a period of try-outs landed in the hands of Lumet, one of the most prolific and versatile directors that ever toiled around Hollywood. The rights to the book were purchased by producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck, who soon hired Arthur Hiller (The Americanization of Emily, The Hospital, The In-Laws) to direct. A script was commissioned from Mamet, but since both the producing team and Hiller disliked it, the director quit and Jay Presson Allen was given a chance to write a new one. This was a very hot project among Hollywood acting superstars, as it required a strong male lead. The likes of Roy Scheider, William Holden, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and Dustin Hoffman all allegedly expressed their interest, but the role was initially offered to Robert Redford, who lost it after going rogue and meeting with Sydney Pollack. The producers then approached Lumet to direct, and out of all the versions he read, he opted for Mamet’s original one. Paul Newman, the new star of the project, agreed this was the best way to go. The Verdict premiered in early December 1982, and the outstandingly warm welcome from the critics cleared its way to five Academy Award nominations, as well as very solid box office results. The ultimate value of the movie, however, can be found in the fact that it looms large in the professional biographies of each and every one of the people involved in making it.

Shot by the excellent Polish cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (Prince of the City, Terms of Endearment, Prizzi’s Honor), displaying a unique color palette with ostensibly toned down colors adding up to a gloomy visual style, with the great Johnny Mandel’s (Point Blank, M*A*S*H) musical score, sparsely used, restrained and unobtrusive, The Verdict is stock full of superb actors and actresses. Paul Newman, who carries the film on his back in one of the best roles he ever performed, is helped by a gallery of talented and experienced masters of their trade: Jack Warden as his mentor, James Mason as the high-classed attorney Newman’s Galvin has to battle in court, Charlotte Rampling as Galvin’s love interest who gets heavily involved in his battle for redemption. You can even spot Bruce Willis as an extra in the background at one point, in one of his first film appearances. Most of all, The Verdict deserves to be called a masterpiece because of Sidney Lumet’s precise, inspired and occasionally hazardous direction, as the filmmaker proves once again there are only a handful of people who can call themselves his peers when it comes to the art of visual storytelling.

David Mamet wrote a script first deemed too dark, too moody and lacking a traditional ending that the producers perceived the audience would expect from a film such as this. Luckily enough, Lumet and Newman seem to have been very well aware of its value. With several instances of outstandingly good dialogue, Mamet’s work is a master class in storytelling, without a single superfluous sentence, without any exhausting exposition and with just the right amount of care and details for every character to be more than a carved out cardboard piece designed to keep Paul Newman’s protagonist company. By centering an interesting and provocative legal case around a lost soul, a man standing firm against the overpowering system, Mamet and Lumet’s story gained something of a mythical quality. It’s wonderful to see a piece of filmmaking designed in an intellectual way with no intention of insulting the audience. The decision to produce a curious blend of a courtroom drama and a personal story of salvation was a very clever move, as the film played just the right chords in the audience and gave an entirely different meaning, and far more power, to the film’s title, only seemingly referring exclusively to the court proceedings. The Verdict is a touching, captivating, virtually spotless masterpiece, and its general quality can be efficiently summed up in the hospital scene, where the main character experiences a catharsis when faced with the comatose victim. This scene alone is a testament to The Verdict’s supreme direction, acting, screenplay and editing, as it celebrates the old “show, don’t tell” fundamental principle of filmmaking.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read David Mamet’s screenplay for The Verdict [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 

“HOW MANY PASSES DOES IT TAKE TO CREATE PERFECT DIALOGUE?”

The Dramatist Poet: A David Mamet Interview by Fred Topel (interview first appeared in Screenwriter’s Monthly).

One of the most prolific and influential playwrights of the late-20th century, David Mamet’s work is famous for its lean, gritty and often profane language possessed of such a singular rhythm that his dialogue has been dubbed ‘Mamet speak.’ Known for his robust male characters, Mamet’s facility for creating highly-charged verbal encounters in a masculine environment repeatedly made his work the subject for discussion and controversy. Emerging from the Chicago theater scene, Mamet came to prominence with American Buffalo (1975) and A Life in the Theatre (1977) before making the transition to Hollywood with the scripts for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and Verdict (1982). Following awards for the powerful stage plays Edmund (1982) and Glengarry Glenn Ross (1984)—the latter of which was turned into a notable 1992 film directed by James Foley—Mamet made his directorial debut with the thriller House of Games (1987). Also that year, he wrote one of his most memorable screenplays, The Untouchables (1987), for director Brian De Palma, while penning his satirical denunciation of the movie business with the play Speed-the-Plow (1988). Mamet tackled sexual politics with the theatrical piece Oleanna (1992), while continuing to make his mark on film with Homicide (1991) and Wag the Dog (1998) before going on to direct The Spanish Prisoner (1998) State and Main (2000) and Heist (2001) to considerable critical acclaim.

Do actors usually get your dialogue or do you have to coach them?
No, they get it. I write it to be spoken, and I think that almost all actors appreciate that.

How many passes does it take to create perfect dialogue?
That’s a really good question. I’m not sure I know the answer. I do it fairly spontaneously, and then sometimes, for various reasons, it has to be recrafted. I used to be really good at that, but it gets more difficult as I get older just because my brain is failing. I have less brain cells because long before any of you guys were born, there was something called the ‘60s. That’s where the brain cells were.

What’s your writing regimen?
I think I’m going to just start writing and keep writing until they throw me in jail. Other than that, I set aside all day every day for writing and break it up with going home to see my family or having lunch or getting a haircut…

Is writing a screenplay or stage play easier?
It would seem that you could do almost anything on film, but that’s part of the wonderful fascination of filmmaking. You say, well, okay, you can do anything you want. Now, what are you going to do? So that’s the wonderful challenge of film. Theoretically, I can do anything I want, limited only by my ability to express it in terms of the shot list. So that’s a fascinating challenge. So I don’t find it any more freeing or any more constrictive than writing plays. They each have their own strictures. The wisdom of how to understand those strictures fascinates me.

What are the strictures of playwriting?
Aristotle said it’s got to be about one thing. It’ll be one character doing one thing in the space of three days in one place, such that every aspect of the play is a journey of the character toward recognition of the situation. And at the end of recognizing the situation, he or she recognizes the situation, undergoes a transformation, the high becomes low, or in comedy, sometimes the low becomes high. That’s the stricture of playwriting.

How do you make a genre film your own?
Well, you can’t help but make a distinct movie. If you give yourself up to the form, it’s going to be distinctively your own because the form’s going to tell you what’s needed. That’s one of the great things I find about working in drama is you’re always learning from the form. You’re always getting humbled by it. It’s exactly like analyzing a dream. You’re trying to analyze your dreams. You say, ‘I know what that means; I know exactly what that means; why am I still unsettled?’ You say, ‘Let me look a little harder at this little thing over here. But that’s not important; that’s not important; that’s not important. The part where I kill the monster—that’s the important part, and I know that means my father this and da da da da da. But what about this little part over here about the bunny rabbit? Why is the bunny rabbit hopping across the thing? Oh, that’s not important; that’s not important.’ Making up a drama is almost exactly analogous to analyzing your dreams. That understanding that you cleanse just like the heroes cleanse not from your ability to manipulate the material but from your ability to understand the material. It’s really humbling, just like when you finally have to look at what that little bunny means. There’s a reason why your mind didn’t want to see that. There’s a reason why you say, ‘Oh, that’s just interstitial material. Fuck that. That’s nothing, right?’ Because that’s always where the truth lies, it’s going to tell you how to reformulate the puzzle.

 
How did you keep the exposition to a minimum?
That’s the fun of it. Anybody can write a script that has ‘Jim, how were things since you were elected governor of Minnesota? How’s your albino daughter?’ ‘As of course you know, Mr. Smith, your son has myopia. It’s amazing that, having that myopia, he was winning the national spelling bee.’ That’s easy; that’s not challenging. The trick is to take a story that might be complex and make it simple enough that people will want to catch up with it rather than stopping them and explaining to them why they should be interested because then they might understand, but they won’t care. What makes them interested is to make them catch up. What’s happening here? Who is this guy? What crime was committed? Who was taken? Why is she important? Why are all these government people running around? And how is he going to get her back? They want to see what he’s going to do next. That’s all that moviemaking comes down to—what happens next?

How do you not become lost in power?
That’s a very good question. I think the answer is that you have to have the specter in front of you all the time. You have to be able to learn, and I think I’m capable of doing this to a certain extent, and I would like to be able to do it to a greater extent, to say that you have to be able to take pride in mastering your own impulses, take pleasure in gratifying them. There are a lot of really great models, and the military is one of them. I think this is a very pro-military movie in many ways. It’s saying, Here are people who are capable of subordinating their financial needs and their physical needs to an extraordinary regiment, mental and physical regiment, in the cause of service. The question of the movie is, ‘To what extent is that person capable of abiding by precepts which he’s teaching other students, which he’s explained to others?’

Have you ever deviated from your own script?
I haven’t deviated from it. I’ve certainly changed it.

In what circumstances?
Well, if something’s not working, a lot of the times you say, ‘Well, let’s try something else.’ I mean, I’ve always got a typewriter in the trailer. Say, ‘You know, that scene isn’t working right. Give me a moment, I’ll write a new scene.’ You get inspired too. Oftentimes, you just get inspired. Stuff’s happening on the set. You say, ‘Oh my God, let’s do some more of that,’ or, ‘Now I understand what happens in scene 47. One of my favorite moments was doing State and Main with Alec Baldwin and Julia Stiles. They’re both drunk out of their minds, and he crashes the car. The car is upside down; they’re both drunk, and he crawls out of the car and looks around. He says, ‘Well, that happened.’ It was like an inspiration at four o’clock in the morning. He said something else, and I said, ‘Well, wait a second, say this.’ I was looking at what was happening on the set and said, ‘Wouldn’t that be funnier?’

Has an actor ever invented a brilliant line that you took credit for?
No, I would never take credit for something somebody else said.

But in a play, you wouldn’t change what’s written.
Well, of course, when it’s written. I mean, I just opened a play in San Francisco on Saturday, and I’m changing the play up until opening night, and that’s the first production. I’ll probably change some things as I work on the manuscript before it gets published. At a certain point you’ve got to stop.

 
What have been the greatest frustrations of letting other people direct your scripts?
Well, the greatest frustrations have been having the scripts directed other than the ways in which I thought they would have gone. But when I did a script for someone else to direct, I got paid for it. I mean, that’s one of the things you get paid for.

When do you make yourself stop writing?
I’m pretty good. At a certain point you want to do something else. Past a certain point, you say it could be perhaps a little bit better with a lot more time, but I try to get it as perfect as I can given the fallibility of the fact I’m not going to live forever.

How do you approach something that’s your own as opposed to a for hire project?
I don’t think I approach them any differently. I put my name on it. That’s the best I know at this time.

Do you see a career plan?
I don’t know. I just make them up as I go along. Whatever anybody says, you’re always making it up as you go along. It’s like when you have babies; nobody gives you a how to book; nobody gives you a manual. It’s like any of the important things in life. Whether it’s your career, whether it’s marriage, whether it’s child rearing, you’re making it up as you go along. And you try to have certain precepts, and sometimes they even change.

Has directing become as natural as writing?
Well, I enjoy it. There are certain things I can do naturally, but the people a lot of us admire—I’m sure a lot of athletes that people admire—they’re working on their weaknesses all the time. That’s what I’m doing at least some of the time. So do you enjoy doing the thing that goes easy? Yeah, sure. But there’s also great enjoyment in doing the thing that comes with difficulty.

Directing is more of a challenge?
Well, certain aspects of the writing are easy. I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass. I work very, very hard on that, but I enjoy working on it because it has great rewards. And I love directing.

When you sit with your plot, do you start with character, theme or story elements?
I think when you’re working on the plot, you’re talking about what does the character want? All the plot is is the structure of the main character towards the achievement of one goal.

 
Sidney Lumet talks about directing, working with Paul Newman, and making movies in New York. Charlie Rose’s interviews with the leading faces of Hollywood are a complete pleasure to become engulfed by. His work has been known to pop up occasionally on YouTube, only to disappear a couple of weeks later, but we’re incredibly excited to bring your attention to the redesigned Charlie Rose website that has been available to the public, with all the treasures of Rose’s career finally at the palm of our hands.

MAKING MOVIES BY SIDNEY LUMET

Sidney Lumet shares his book, ‘Making Movies,’ about the technique and job of filmmaking.

Sometimes the relationship between actors and writers gets very testy indeed. As the director, I have to be very careful here. I need them both. Most writers hate actors. And yet stars are the keys to getting a picture approved by a studio. Some directors have enormous power, but nobody has the power of one of the top stars. If the star demands it, any studio will drop the writer in less than thirty seconds—and the director too, for that matter. Most of the time, I’ve done enough work ahead of time so that this sort of crisis never arises. I’ll come to an agreement with the writer before an actor has been approached, and I’ll usually have a thorough discussion with the star about the script before we decide to go ahead. These experiences vary. Most actors, despite Hitchcock’s pronouncement, are very bright. Some are superb on script. Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman are wonderfully helpful. One can gain a lot by listening to them. Pacino isn’t terrifically articulate, but he’s got a built-in sense of the truth. If a scene or a line bothers him, I pay attention. He’s probably right.

But stars can also destroy a script. David Mamet did the first adaptation of The Verdict. A major star became interested in doing the movie, but he felt that his character had to be fleshed out more. That sometimes means explaining what should be left unsaid, a version of the rubber ducky. The performance should flesh out the character. Mamet always leaves a great deal unsaid. He wants the actor to flesh it out. So he refused to do it. Another writer was brought in. The writer was very bright, and she simply filled in what had been unspoken in Mamet’s script and picked up a fat fee. The script collapsed. The star then asked if he could work on it with a third writer. They did five additional rewrites. By now there was a million dollars in script charges on the picture. The scripts kept getting worse. The star was slowly shifting the emphasis on the character. Mamet had written a drunk hustling his way from one seedy case to another until one day he sees a chance for salvation and, filled with fear, takes it.

The star kept eliminating the unpleasant side of the character, trying to make him more lovable so that the audience would “identify” with him. That’s another misdirected cliche of movie writing. Chayefsky used to say, “There are two kinds of scenes: the Pet the Dog scene and the Kick the Dog scene. The studio always wants a Pet the Dog scene so everybody can tell who the hero is.” Bette Davis made a great career kicking the dog, as did Bogart, as did Cagney (how about White Heat—is that a great performance or not?). I’m sure the audience identified with Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs as much as with Jodie Foster. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been the roar of laughter that greeted the wonderful line “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

When I received yet another script of The Verdict, I reread Mamet’s version, which he’d given me months earlier. I said I would do it if we went back to that script. We did. Paul Newman read it, and we were off and running. Sometimes it’s the writer who turns out to be a complete whore. I was doing a movie that needed an articulate, crisp, cerebral delivery to make the dialogue of the leading character work. Another very big star had gotten hold of the script and wanted to do it. I said to the writer that though the actor was terrific, I wasn’t sure he could handle this kind of dialogue. The writer blanched when I said that I was going to ask the actor to read (i.e., audition) for me. I called the actor, told him that for both our sakes I thought it best if we read the script aloud. We set a date.

As I hung up the phone, the writer—who was also the producer on the picture—approached me with a mixture of awe and menace. The menace won out. In a voice that would’ve made a Mafia don seem like an angel, the writer-producer said, “You know, if you turn him down, the studio just might want to get rid of you!” The writer-producer (we call it a hyphenate) was going to get that picture made, even at the cost of ruining what had been written. The actor read, agreed the part was wrong for him, and left with no hard feelings at all. In fact, we did another picture together some years later. But I never worked with the writer again. —Making Movies by Sidney Lumet

 
David Mamet interviewed by Jeff Goldsmith, Creative Screenwriting.

MAMET’S THEATRICAL ROOTS

“You gotta put your ass on the line and use the audience. Period. The reason that theatre evolved that way was because the progress of the theatre on the stage aped and recapitulated the mechanism of human understanding, which is: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. And one learns to lead the audience ahead by giving them just enough information to make them interested, but not enough information so that they warrant surprise and punchline. Which is the way a joke is structured.”

MAMET ON DIRECTING

“Your chances of making a living or making a better living are increased by writing something that you would want to write badly enough that you would actually go out and raise the money to direct it. You’re much better to do that because otherwise you’re just going to waste twenty years waiting for the good will of your inferiors. If you really, really want to make a film—go film it for God’s sake, go steal a camera and get it done rather than trying to interest some second-class mind to help make your script a little bit worse.”

MAMET ON EXPOSITION

“The trick is—never write exposition. That’s absolutely the trick. Never write it. The audience needs to understand what the story is, and if the hero understands what he or she is after then the audience will follow it. The ancient joke about exposition used to be in radio writing when they’d say, ‘Come and sit down in that blue chair.’ So, that to me is the paradigm of why it’s an error to write exposition. Then exposition came out of television, ‘I’m good, Jim, I’m good. There’s no wonder why they call me the best orthopedic surgeon in town.’ Right? And now the exposition has migrated or metastasized into the fucking stage direction. ‘He comes into the room and you can just see he’s the kind of guy who fought in the Vietnam War.’ So the error of writing exposition exists absent even the most miniscule understanding of the dramatic process. You gotta take out the exposition. The audience doesn’t care. How do we know they don’t care? Anybody ever come into the living room and see a television drama that was halfway through? Did you have any difficulty understanding what was going on? No. The trick is to leave the exposition out and to always leave out the ‘obligatory scene.’ The obligatory scene is always the audition scene, so when you see the movie, not only is it the worst scene in the movie—it’s also the worst acted scene in the movie. Because the star has to do their worst, most expository acting to get the job. Leave out the exposition; we want to know what’s happening next. All our little friends…will say to you at one point, ‘You know, we want to know more about her.’ And that’s when you say, ‘Well, that’s what you paid me for—so that you would want to know more about her.’”

MAMET ON CON-ARTIST TALES

“In every generation the cunning rediscover that they can manipulate the trustful and they count this as the great, great wisdom of all time.”

PROFESSOR MAMET’S READING ASSIGNMENT

“I suggest that everyone get Francis Ferguson’s edition of Aristotle’s Poetics. Read it once—it’ll make the point—and then retire to your typewriters. [Screenwriting’s] all about working on it and working on it until it comes out even. There’s really no magic to it. There really isn’t. They say that Bach could improvise a toccata and I’m sure he could, but I don’t think anybody can improvise a screenplay. Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces is another great book where he goes through the “Hero’s Journey” and explains that all Heroes Journeys are alike whether it’s Jesus or Moses or Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dumbo. Every Hero’s Journey is exactly alike because that’s the way that we understand our own Hero’s Journey—which is the story of our own life. We’re given a problem, we disregard the problem, it’s given to us again, and finally we’re called to an adventure and we find ourselves unprepared and we find ourselves in the belly of the beast like Jonah, who’s eventually spewed onto a foreign land in the second act and little friends come and help. It’s true. Whether it’s Mickey the Mouse or whether it’s John the Baptist or whether its Joshua—it’s the same thing according to Joseph Campbell. The little friends come and eventually the problems of the second act rectify themselves so that the third act is a reiteration of the first problem in a new form. Not how do I live with the fact that the taskmaster is killing the Jew, but how do I bring the Torah to the Jewish people? So the third act becomes the quest for the goal and eventually the hero achieves his or her goal and that’s the end of the movie that started since frame one.”

 

DIRECTOR’S COMMENTARY WITH SIDNEY LUMET

128 minutes of BTS and insight from the legendary director, courtesy of Vashi Nedomansky.

“On the commentary to the DVD for The Verdict, director Sidney Lumet relates how he and the cinematographer studied the paintings of Caravaggio as a visual reference and color scheme for filming The Verdict. It is evidenced in almost every frame of this dark, quiet, beautiful movie. Weighted with browns and reds, heavy with shadow, the film is an Old Master painting in motion. The classic look of the film dovetails perfectly with its subject matter, which as treated with economy and intelligence (and, yes, even some pomposity) by David Mamet in his screenplay, approaches an affinity with the best tragedies.” —Mark Hoobler

 
Sidney Lumet talks about The Verdict during an interview for AFI’s 10 Top 10. Two of Lumet’s films, 12 Angry Men and The Verdict made the Top 10 Best Courtroom Dramas on the list.

 
The featurette contains interviews with Newman, Mason, Reed, and the producers.

 
Paul Newman interview on The Verdict and the craft of acting.

 
Written by Sven Mikulec. Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict. Photographed by Louis Goldman © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (Fox-Zanuck/Brown Productions), Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images. Please visit the website and support: The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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