#29 - The Verdict (Sidney Lumet)

"I changed my life today, what did you do?"

Sidney Lumet is no stranger to courtroom shenanigans, after all he is the man behind probably the very best courtroom drama - “12 Angry Men”. But with “The Verdict” he has made a film that has become the blueprint for the modern courtroom drama, a genre that was very popular in the 80’s and 90’s. And even though the fad has died off a little we still get one of these films every now and then (“The Lincoln Lawyer” is an enjoyable one), and they still reach for the basics that where set up in “The Verdict”.

The story follows Frank Galvin who is an ambulance-chasing lawyer and a drunk. At the start of the film we meet him at his bottom, as he is chased out of a funeral home by a family member of the deceased when he tries to peddle his business to the widow. And as these movies go, a seemingly trivial case falls in to Frank’s lap, but it is actually the case that will re-awaken his conscience and sense of justice.

The formula is very familiar by now but it is also executed by far the best in this very film, to great extent thanks to the screenplay by David Mamet who’s characters are rich as ever. One of the best features of the screenplay is how it portrays two very different approaches to case-building and research. On one side you have Frank Galvin who is fueled by nothing but his re-discovered morals and booze. And on the other the machinery of a big law firm. Yes, I know, very familiar stuff, but it works to great effect here because it is very much stripped down to its core.

The movies in this genre often make the mistake of making the plot too complex, even complicated and contrived. But “The Verdict” simplifies everything and goes for the emotion and lets Mamet’s characters and the actors that play them take charge.

Sidney Lumet was always the actor’s director in that he shoots the performance and never gets in the way of it. His cinema has an almost invisible style that is perfect for a film of this kind and in "The Verdict" his cast is, as usual for a Lumet film, effortlessly convincing. But this is also a Paul Newman movie, the whole thing revolves around his character and he is really at the top of his game here. No matter how self-destructive his character is in this film with all the boozing you can’t help but root for his bleeding heart, which makes it in a lot of ways the perfect Paul Newman role. Still the standout for me, apart from Newman, is James Mason as the opposing lawyer. I love his scenes and he brings this playful elegance to the role that seems impossible to breach especially in the courtroom. And once it does get breached it is a beautiful moment.

One of the thematic elements of the film is to show the pitfalls of the modern American judicial system. It is used as a great storytelling device in a sense because it really gives the force of opposition an unlimited power as they plant stories for their case in newspapers, buy off key witnesses etc. But still this is all a build up to the last hurrah and the message that the verdict is still in the hands of the jury.

This brings us to the end of the film and my favorite scene in which Frank is sitting in the office while the telephone rings. I will not spoil anything but I will say that, considering what happened so far in Frank’s life, it is quite obviously the whole point of the film. And it gracefully lets the audience be the jury and pass the verdict as the film fades to black. Should he answer or not?

“The Verdict” is one of the best films in the genre but it is not a very challenging film, which is by no means a flaw, and despite its formulaic nature it is wholly engaging and has a great emotional hook. The great performances and writing only sweeten the deal. 


Paul Newman - Frank Galvin
Charlotte Rampling - Laura Fischer
James Mason - Ed Concannon
Jack Warden - Mickey Morrissey
Milo O'Shea - Judge Hoyle

The Verdict on IMDb


  1. Hi, there. I know this is a very old post, but I have recently seen the movie. You say that the whole point of the ending where the phone is ringing is the whole point of the movie. Can you elaborate on that? I'm having trouble drawing a conclusion from this.

  2. It's simple. The ending allows the audience to act as a faux-jury and pass the final verdict on Frank and Laura and the rest of the film.

    In that last shot Frank is posed with a dilemma, weather to answer the phone or not. We all know Laura is on the other side, probably wanting forgiveness, The question that is posed to the audience by that final fade to black is: "Does she deserve forgiveness?" "Does she deserve a second chance, especially in the light of what Frank did with his second chance?" "Should Frank answer the phone?"

    The verdict is yours.