Karyn Gerhard is a senior editor at Alpha Books and an information addict looking for an adventure. This blog documents her explorations into of all those dusty corners of human culture that no one has bothered to clean in years.
I don’t know how to choose work that illuminates what my life is about. I don’t know what my life is about and don’t examine it. My life will define itself as I live it. The movies will define themselves as I make them. As long as the theme is something I care about at the moment, it’s enough for me to start work. Maybe work itself is what my life is about. —Sidney Lumet
Last week we lost one of the all-time great directors, Sidney Lumet. If you don’t know his name, you will definitely know his movies—Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, 12 Angry Men, Running on Empty, Murder on the Orient Express, the Pawnbroker, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, to name just a few. The man was an unmitigated genius.
Lumet was the quintessential New York director. Like Scorsese (my other absolute favorite), the city actually becomes a character in his films—he makes it convey a mood, a sentiment, and somehow even comment on the actions that are going on. His movies are also morality plays, but more than that, they make you think. So many of his characters are people who are caught in some kind of crises; you see them agonize over their choices, and you all of a sudden find yourself wondering what you would do in their position. Take, for instance, the hapless Ethan Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. He is sucked into robbing his own parents’ jewelry store by his no-good brother; on one hand you can’t even conceive of doing something so stupid, yet we’ve all gotten stuck in impossible situations in our lives, so you understand how he gets pulled in by his brother.
Lumet was an actor’s director in the best sense of the term. His movies are character-driven, with many of the people dealing with a crisis or battling with their conscience. In the hands of a lesser director these characters would tilt into melodrama, but not with Lumet. The performances he gets from his actors are some of the best that have ever been filmed—take Henry Fonda as the president in Fail-Safe, trying to convince the Russian Premier that the nuclear bomb headed toward Moscow was a mistake; or Lee J. Cobb’s moment of disintegration when he admits his son hates him in 12 Angry Men; or Peter Finch going berserk on the air, screaming “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” in Network. Lumet’s direction is flawless, in that you can’t even see it—it appears that he just trains the camera on the actor and lets it go, but his moral sense and his way of making you think is seething just underneath the surface.
Shockingly, Lumet never won an Academy Award for his movies, though they finally gave him an honorary one in 2005. When asked about the award, Lumet—never one to mince words—said, “I wanted one, dammit, and I felt I deserved one.” And that he did. In spades.
Choosing one film to represent Lumet’s entire body of work is absolutely impossible—there are far too many amazing films in too many genres (hell, he even made the camp classic The Wiz!). But the subject of corruption was of particular interest to Lumet, and I can think of no better movie to illustrate that interest than The Verdict. To call The Verdict a courtroom drama is selling it short in the extreme. The story centers around Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a once hotshot lawyer who is now a staggering drunk who couldn’t get a case if his life depended on it. He’s thrown a bone by an old crony Mickey (Jack Warden)—a seemingly open-and-shut case of malpractice against a Catholic hospital in Boston. But when Frank visits the girl put into a permanent coma due to the arrogant negligence of her doctors, he decides to rally and try to win this one. Trouble is, he has to go up against the Catholic Diocese and some pretty high-powered doctors to do it. No one has faith that Galvin can pull this off—not even his cronies. Not only is he battling the best lawyers money can buy, he’s battling a paralyzing lack of confidence, witnesses who won’t come forward, not to mention crippling alcoholism. Without any fanfare you watch as the movie turns from a courtroom drama into a character study of this deeply troubled guy, and you are completely transfixed.
The Verdict is, far and away, my favorite of Paul Newman’s dramatic movies. The complexity he gives this character is sheer brilliance. On the surface you see a weak, washed-up drunk, but as the movie goes on he lets you see glimpses of the passionate, never-say-die, principled lawyer he used to be, and how terrified he is of trying to be that once again. Still, as screwed up as he is, there’s an insane bravery to this character. In one jaw-dropping scene, Galvin visits Ed Concannon (James Mason), the head of the law firm representing the doctors; Galvin is an absolute mess, a pile of sobered-up nerves trying to play it cool. You see the terror in his eyes as he realizes he is in way over his head, and his desperate attempt to pull himself together while Concannon very serenely rips him to pieces. And when Galvin finally gets that day in court against the dishonest doctors and corrupt lawyers … well, you just have to see it to believe it.
The Verdict is Lumet firing on all of his directorial, moralistic, make-you-think cylinders, with a brilliant cast and a fantastically wrenching script by David Mamet. It is sad beyond belief that we won’t be seeing work like this anymore.
Lumet stepped out of his usual New York to film this movie in Boston (in the middle of winter, no less). It seems more than fitting to pair this great movie with a great bowl of clam chowder. So pour yourself a bowl and enjoy an amazing movie made by an even more amazing man.
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Slow Cooker Cooking, Second Edition, by Ellen Brown