The line separating film and theatre is often fine enough to imagine a proscenium arch surrounding the aspect ratio, assuming such imagination is fitting. The acting styles and narrative beats may differ at times, but often enough, all that truly separates the two is a camera and the ability to edit storytelling. Those differences, however, add a fascinating element when someone with a theatrical background applies himself or herself to a cinematic production.
David Mamet has had a successful career with Hollywood and Broadway, though like many a movie star, began his career in the latter. After writing plays for a little over a decade, he broke into screenwriting with an American adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice. While that work, at the time, was not critically well received, he didn’t have to wait too long for a surefire hit. Along with acclaimed filmmaker Sidney Lumet, his adaptation of Barry Reed’s novel “The Verdict” helped send the New Hollywood era out in style.
Reed’s novel never was a theatrical production, but the way Mamet translates his story to screen makes a convincing case for a potential adaptation. First of all, in many respects it does away with the traditional, in the film sense, three-act structure and opts for a two-act structure, instead. Not only does this separate the actual court case from the build-up to it, but also it allows the audience to get properly acquainted with the protagonist, Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), whose current life at the bottom of the professional rung never seems to get better after his colleague Mickey (Jack Warden) hands on a silver platter one of his biggest cases in recent memory.
While Newman effectively summons his natural magnetism for a thoroughly golden performance, it’s the narrative Mamet weaves around him that’s the real cause for celebration as it allows him to take full reign of the character. Though it isn’t always the case, one of the stereotypes amongst theatrical storytelling is a tendency to over-inflate the drama of key plot points for added visceral effect – yes; film is often guilty of it, too. Yet, in spite of a narrative structure that purposefully builds to the midpoint just to decompress and allow the second act to proceed in a similar fashion, Mamet’s approach to these significant moments is skillfully understated.
Instead of trying to artificially manufacture drama out of scenes that contain plenty of otherwise, Mamet leaves it to the audience to decipher and internalize the importance without condescending to them. In turn, Newman and the rest of the cast are able to work with material containing a more organic progression that lets them explore similarly naturalistic character arcs.
But any story can only achieve a desired level of effectiveness if it has the director to match, and Sidney Lumet was an excellent choice. Throughout renowned pictures like 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet was a master at emphasizing and building conflict while retaining a humanist eye that eliminates the need for traditional antagonists – or even making charming anti-heroes out of traditional antagonists in films like Dog Day Afternoon. Though James Mason’s Ed Concannon may often feel the villainous defendant lawyer courtroom dramas love, he isn’t so much the problem as is the systemic apathy extending from the law to the general public.
And while Frank simultaneously grapples with the reasons for which he’s pursuing a case that all parties agreed to settle out of court, Lumet keeps a distance regarding both internal and external conflicts. With the former in particular, Lumet frequently depicts courtroom scenes in wide-angle extreme long shots to give the audience a full view. It’s as if Lumet is consciously taking the power out of his hands and giving it to the viewers so that he may remain impartial and let them work through the emotional density themselves. With an ending where Frank talks about the people having the power, such directorial choices feel quite appropriate.
The power of The Verdict truly is a product of shared humility between director and screenwriter, one of whom had considerably more experience in cinema than the other. In a sense, it seems a fitting conclusion to New Hollywood. In an era when American auteurs were defining themselves as filmmakers and establishing a style meant to call attention to their personality as such, it’s refreshing to see one of the era’s foremost figures take a small step back.