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The Verdict

Mutual Compatibles

 

It is sometimes best to call into question the craft of a film one really likes. It can bring out some of the qualities that make cinema so multiform: it makes us aware of how many elements are at work in a film at the same time. The Verdict is best described as a fine film with many flaws, a film which  holds up thirty years later no matter if it is riddled with poor character motivation and plot inconsistencies. This may seem surprising considering it was written by none other than one of the US’s foremost playwrights, David Mamet, and by a playwright who often talks about the importance of getting the structure right. He has compared scriptwriting to the solidly built 18th century house in which he lives, and reckons filmmaking is first and foremost a craft.

But whatever is interesting about the film lies not in its craftsmanship but in its convention. These are often interchangeable terms but it is here we want to distinguish between the two for the purposes of indicating what makes many films work even when possessing qualities that should indicate their failure.  Craft is the internal logic that makes a piece of craftwork hold together – like a well made table, chair…or house. But convention is closer to an external logic, a sort of viewer logic that is partly about the coherence and solidity of the object, and partly about the expectations of the receiver. Many craft objects that are also art objects possess this twofold quality, and many of the achievements in architecture and design reside in the balance between craft and vision – the latter, in this context, the convention of the artist in relation to the receiver. Sometimes we are willing to forgo the inner logic for the external vision, and maybe one reason Ingmar Bergman was so scathing of Antonioni rested in this sense that the Italian had ‘never mastered his craft’. We may think here of the way it seems to be the plane and the car falling in love in Zabriskie Point as Antonioni makes no effort to suggest that the two young lovers to be have seen each other’s faces, or that Maria Schneider’s character in The Passenger wears various outfits though she has a bag that could hardly contain all these items of clothing. It is as though Antonioni’s vision superimposes itself on the craft, and the convention that is an Antonioni movie – the slightly ethereal relationship with reality – is more important than verisimilitudinous craftsmanship.

This is true of much cinema, and if we see it as sometimes an art form and sometimes an entertainment and much more rarely a craft it resides in which direction the convention goes. Is it the convention of the artist’s vision as over a series of films the director asserts his own personality on the material so that viewers come to expect an Antonioni film, a Bergman film, a Scorsese picture, or is it the convention of genre, of star vehicle, of studio pic? Clearly many films work with simultaneous elements, and some of the very finest movies of the seventies rested on a set of interconnecting expectations met and ignored. For example in a film like McCabe and Mrs Miller we have Robert Altman as auteurist, Warren Beatty as star, the western as genre, and Leonard Cohen’s anachronistic yet apt music, all competing elements that can lead to an especially rich work rather than a compromised vision. The same could be said of Taxi Driver, with Scorsese’s direction, Schrader’s script and De Niro’s acting, as well as a Bernard Herrmann score. In each instance the western and the revenge thriller give way to the director’s vision, complemented by the creative input of others. Often writers – like William Goldman – propose that cinema is a craft instead of an art form chiefly due to the many people involved in the production of a film. Instead we would argue that its potentiality as an art form resides less in the way in which numerous people produce a work of craft, but how the craft is obliterated by the different perspectives brought to bear on the film. What we want to look at in relation to The Verdict is how the film is interesting despite its relative weakness as a piece of craft, but works well as a piece offering different perspectives.

There are at least four perspectives we can look at in the film: director Sidney Lumet’s, writer David Mamet’s, and the actress Charlotte Rampling’s, and of course and most importantly Paul Newman’s. We may view the film chiefly from Lumet’s interest in the law, and though he is often referred to as a metteur-en-scene instead of an auteur (the critic who brought auteurism to the US, Andrew Sarris, describes him in Confessions of a Cultist as “not the most inspired director in the world”), many of his films have been preoccupied with the legal system. Sometimes this takes the form of the courtroom drama – 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, Daniel – and sometimes police procedure – Serpico, The Offence and Prince of the City – but the most important feature in many Lumet films is the notion of justice: who metes it out, who receives it, and above all else what is ethically the correct behaviour one should adopt. Even the recent Before the Devil Knows your Dead quickly moves from the heist to the ethical ramifications of two brothers responsible basically for killing their mother who owns the jewellery shop they desperately broke into.

The theme of justice however is of little interest to Mamet. The most important aspect that runs through his work would seem to be the subject of power. Through a series of plays, scripts and directorial works including Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleana, The Untouchables, The House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, power-playing proves vital. “People only speak to get what they want”, Mamet once said, and the right thing to do is less important than getting what you want from a situation so that you are not being controlled and manipulated by others. If we feel the key moment for Lumet would be Newman winning an impossible case; the most important moment for Mamet would surely be the very end of the film, where Newman lets the phone ring knowing that it will be his lover looking for forgiveness after betraying him earlier in the film. If he picks up the phone will he lose the balance of power he has finally gained by banishing her from his life?

The lover is played by none other than Charlotte Rampling, an actor who can play unfathomable so well that we can almost forgive a scriptwriter for creating a role for her without motivation. Central to Rampling’s interest as an actor is her capacity to convey inner turmoil over outer motivation, or, even when she does indicate outer motivation, how it shows itself less as ambition than disturbance: it is the sense of disturbance she conveys more than any motivational purpose. Whether it is the Tory MP she plays in Paris By Night, where she is responsible for someone’s death after believing he is trying to ruin her career, or the Jewish aristocrat who continues an affair long after the war, with a Nazi who tortured her during it, in The Night Porter, Rampling plays characters for whom internal chaos is more significant than external purpose.

Hence, though Mamet hardly justifies the character’s motivation, Rampling gives credence to a character relatively motiveless. Here she embarks on an affair with Newman to feed information to the defence team, a legal team headed by one of the finest lawyers in Boston, played by James Mason. It seems she quit the firm and now wants to enter once again the profession, but to do so Mason pays her to get information from Newman, who’s prosecuting a hospital that was responsible for a patient’s death: she is expected to prove her loyalty for the firm and her tenaciousness. From a motivational point of view this is weak craftsmanship, for we never really find out why she left the firm in the first place, nor why she is willing to prostitute herself to Newman for Mason. Yet with Rampling in the role, and with her unfathomable feline features, the character remains intriguingly enigmatic where on the page, or at least the page of a writer without much of a vision, she would come across as merely shallow. From Mamet’s perspective she can prove a cipher in the sexual power structure (a la Oleanna), and from Rampling’s less a cipher than an enigma. In each instance this isn’t about superiority of craft, so much as perspectives that allow us to make sense of the film.

The most important perspective of all however, is Newman’s. Originally Robert Redford was lined up for the role, but couldn’t see himself as an alcoholic. This could be read as precious protection of a star’s persona, or an astute realisation that Redford’s persona doesn’t lend itself well to hard drinking. Newman’s more obviously does – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cool Hand Luke and The Sting are merely three examples where he plays drinkers. Yet what else is it in The Verdict that makes it such a Newman role? So often Newman plays less redemptive characters than characters possessed of a redemptive dimension: whether it is Eddie Felson feeling responsible for Piper Laurie’s character’s death in The Hustler, his character still feeling a bit responsible for  screwing up his relationship with his wife in Slap Shot, or treating women like rubbish in Hud, Newman’s characters often possess a semi-arc that shows them not in emotional peripety, radically shifting their characters and values to give the film a full arc (of which poor Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets is an especially horrible example of this characterisational volte face), but modifying their character in a gesture: Fast Eddie taking on Minnesota Fats as if to seek recompense for Laurie’s death, winning a court case here to make amends for caving in over a case many years before. It is partly through Newman’s casting that the film gets away with a denouement boarding on the improbable. Newman manages to win the case despite weak witnesses, a very poor prosecution, and even a rather half-hearted summing up. If the film wouldn’t have worked with Redford due to the actor’s clean cut moral persona, then it wouldn’t have only been an issue of drinking; we couldn’t – as we will show later – have quite believed Redford would have been so haphazard in his research, so incompetent in the court-room. Newman’s determination to do better while at the same time remaining trapped within his lazy attitude suits the film: it gives texture to a character on paper whom we might care little to identify with.

What we’ve so far proposed then is not that the film is a work of craft, but that it is a film of colliding perspectives which happen to give the film an impression of craft. Now some may argue what does it matter whether it is a combination of elements or a singular work of craftsmanship? Isn’t it merely an idle act of enquiry? We would answer no, and for two reasons. One reason is to escape from the intentional fallacies of crediting the work too readily to the conscious mind of the creator, and the second ties into the first no matter how contradictorily – the notion of the well-crafted script beloved by script gurus. As Robert McKee says in Story: “Just as a composer must excel in the principles of musical composition, so you must master the corresponding principles of story composition. This craft is neither mechanics nor gimmicks. It is the concert of techniques by which we create a conspiracy of interest between ourselves and the audience.” We say contradictory, because though script gurus are interested in the notion of intentionality (often talking about the need to do draft after draft), they are usually less interested in the singularity of creation: it doesn’t matter how many people are involved, it is the end product that counts, not the subjectivity of its creator.  But so often it isn’t the script that is good or bad, per se, but how the elements come together to make weaknesses in the script seem like relative strengths. If the script guru proposes less subjectivity and more intentionality; we want to suggest more subjectivity and less intentionality.

In Mamet’s script here we notice key elements that are consistent with his work, the preoccupations that add up to a universe one can call the Mametian. But at the same time this is less about the script as brilliant craft; more Mamet’s perspective interconnecting usefully with the subjectivities of others, of Lumet’s interest in law, in Rampling’s unfathomability, in Newman’s semi-arcs.

Here then it would be useful to talk about the lack of craft in Mamet’s script, how it would look on the page as an ostensibly tightly structured piece of work. Though the film is based on a novel, this hardly passes for an excuse: Mamet could surely have restructured and tightened up the novel’s flaws if there were any – we are interested in the script that the film utilises and the problems therein. Firstly, Newman is offered a key case by his good friend, played by Jack Warden, who reckons it will be easy money. Newman won’t even need to go to trial; he can win an out of court settlement. He talks to the sister and brother-in-law who want justice, and Newman explains that they won’t have to pay any money up front: that it is pro bono case and Newman will get a third of the money if they win. This is normal, he says, and they can shop around to prove it. They agree and Newman goes ahead and talks to one particular doctor who insists that the case will be easy to win – and that it is too easy to settle out of court and allow the hospital to keep the whole case hush-hush. Newman also goes and takes pictures of the sister who has been in a coma for years. The combination of strong evidence and emotional realisation makes Newman believe he can win the case in court. When he is offered a cheque for two hundred and ten thousand dollars he turns it down. This is the case that could put him back on track after years of being lost

With another actor in the role inconsistencies would show themselves. Newman is moved by the family’s plight but then doesn’t make any effort to ask the family whether he should go ahead with the case. They have said they want justice, but the impression given is that they also need money. Newman makes his crisis of conscience decision for himself. Mamet famously said the audience will believe anything they have not been give reason to disbelieve, but here we may wonder whether this decision has been made with or without the expressed wishes of the family. It isn’t until much later in the film that the husband harangues Newman for his decision to fight the case without consulting them. If it works cinematically, even if it would feel like a plot hole on the page, it resides in Newman’s persona. How often has he played characters who act impetuously without thinking through the way his decisions impact on others: is this not vital to his wife’s resentment in Slap Shot, is it not vital to many of his actions The Hustler, and is it not what makes him irritate the hell out of everybody in Hud?

When at one stage here it looks like the case is lost before it has begun, Newman goes to the judge’s house and asks if the case can be put back a week – Newman’s key witness, the doctor, is curiously out of town – the judge says no, and insists that yet again Newman has to play the lone wolf, and yet once again require others to rescue him. Within the context of Newman’s persona though this works quite well: his half-arced characterizations lend themselves to this type of half-thought through grand gesture: the gesture that says he can win a case alone, but then requires a helping hand at key moments. If Redford was right to reject the role, then, it may not only have been the alcoholic dimension, but also the nature of the arc. Redford also often plays characters that are half-arced, but their arcs are not completed often less due to incompetence than to an integrity that is greater than the goal he would seem to be pursuing. In Brubaker he wants to help the prisoners but not the detriment of his own ethical code; in All the President’s Men in one scene he has a stand off with Hoffman’s character that could mean they wouldn’t be able to continue their investigation together, but this would have nothing to do with Redford’s incompetence; more his personal beliefs. If Redford simply didn’t want to play an alcoholic, then why take on the role a couple of years later of Roy Hobbs in The Natural, playing a heavy drinking ex baseball player? It would seem that Redford saw in the role a half-arc that left an incompetent character too much at the mercy of others – the judge, Rampling, the jury – for Redford to feel comfortable.

Hopefully what we’ve established is the appropriateness of Newman’s casting in relation to the particulars of the script; and that a conventionally better crafted work would have less successfully brought out the singularity of Newman’s persona. It may have given him a fuller arc and ironed out some of the plot inconsistencies but left the film less than a vehicle for Newman. This is an example where craftsmanship gives way to convention. If we think of the scene where Newman and Rampling first get together, there is an exchange that seems only half likely within the context of the scene and improbable when we think back to it after events later in the film. During their conversation, Rampling says that she used to be married to a lawyer and Newman doesn’t ask who that might happen to have been, even though we in the audience might want to know – and surely Newman the lawyer would want to know – who this beautiful, mysterious women might have been married to and who just so happens to be hanging out in an all-male drinking bar. When much later in the film she turns out to be on the side of the defence, is rather closely related to Mason, and that Mason is the most famous lawyer in Boston, with the media always to hand, we may wonder why Newman not only didn’t ask questions, but how come he didn’t know who she was.

This flaw in the script nevertheless still almost works within the context of Newman’s persona, where the reckless edge and the egotism are more important than Newman as a cipher for the plot mechanics. When before going over to talk to her he bets an acquaintance in the bar that he is going to get laid that night, it is like a combination of the young hustler feeling the world is at his feet, and the wiser but still cocky older man in Slap Shot and The Color of Money who can win a bet and get a woman either by wiles or charm. Our expectations of the Newman persona, or even our sense of Newman playing into his persona if we barely know Newman’s films – may allow us to believe that this is a man who gets what he wants without thinking too hard about why he is getting it. We cannot forget after all that though Newman’s in his mid-fifties in the film he is still good enough looking to woo a woman twenty plus years his junior, and isn’t there a sense that in a man this good looking he wouldn’t bother to find out whether the woman is playing him: couldn’t she alone be drawn to his looks and charm? We can reminds ourselves of Mamet’s dictum that the audience will believe anything that it hasn’t been given reason to disbelieve and see how this functions in relation to star personae and script weaknesses. On paper, a beautiful young woman coming into a bar and seducing a lawyer twenty plus years her senior without the lawyer thinking twice about what she might want from him seems poor plotting. That the lawyer is played by Paul Newman, and the younger woman by Charlotte Rampling, removes much of that implausibility.

Usually the idea of a star superimposing his or her persona on the material is seen pejoratively. There are so many stories about scripts changed once a star comes on board (like Leonardo Di Caprio’s character from The Beach moving from the celibate he is in the book to the more or less womanizer he is in the film), that it will seem perverse to defend the star’s superimposition on the material. But we are talking of the star only as one element in the disintegration of craft in the face of multiple perspectives. Maybe a better script would have created better motivation for Rampling, a sharper lawyer in Newman and a pessimistic ending where Newman loses an inadequately defended case if the director had not been Lumet. Yet these very elements make The Verdict the film it is. With fewer flaws it might have worked better on paper but been less interesting on celluloid.

To conclude on why this is so we should look at the biggest weakness in the film: that Newman wins the case despite a woefully incompetent prosecution, one so weak that during the case Warden looks like he is shrinking in his seat with shame, frustration and empathy for his friend, while the brother- in-law loses his temper in the court corridors for Newman obviously mounting such a weak prosecution when he could have settled out of court. What we have are two things at odds here. Firstly we have the demands of a well-constructed narrative through the demands of a well-constructed case. As with many court-room dramas, much of the plotting resides in the defence and the prosecutors’ cases. A twist in a court room drama is usually a new piece of evidence. By the end of the film the good guy wins by offering, if you like, better twists than the opposition. But Newman’s persona is at odds with this type of competence, the very competence we would expect from Redford as he diligently investigates in All the President’s Men or Three Days of the Condor, defends his stance in Brubaker or, more recently in Lions for Lambs. If Redford had starred in the film it may have been closer to a morality tale, with Redford the crusading lawyer; and with another clever, as opposed to moral, actor in the role, it may have been closer to a thriller. It would have been the sort of film where the twists and turns could be worked through intellect against intellect, and given the court-room a chess-like intensity.

But with Newman in the role the film settles for the middle-ground, as if Newman doesn’t so much impose his persona onto the material, as prove the lynchpin between the two opposing visions of the writer and director. Taking into account our suggestion that Mamet is a writer of power (and especially of intellectual prowess where people talk only to get what they want), and Lumet chiefly a director of moral responsibility, of liberal decency, Newman’s persona fits well into the role of a lawyer past his prime and where drink has dulled a no doubt once sharp intelligence, and at the same time coming close to disintegrating any moral purpose he once possessed.

Yet we are still left with that weakness. During the film Newman has three potentially key witnesses. The first is the doctor who insists that Newman must take the hospital to court, that he doesn’t want to see the doctors responsible ever practising again. The second is a seventy five year old black doctor who hasn’t practised for ages and has been paid in numerous cases in recent years as a prosecuting witness against dubious medical practises. The third witness is a nurse who got out of the profession after doctoring a document that would have proved the doctors’ malpractice. Each witness shows up less Newman’s intelligence than its limitations. The first witness disappears to the Caribbean, after presumably being offered some of the very money Newman turns down as he insists he will fight it out in court. Didn’t he realize that a hospital determined to protect its reputation by buying Newman off, will then use some of that money to take out his key witness? It doesn’t occur to Newman until it is too late; after he tries to get hold of his witness shortly before the trial and finds him out of the country. The second witness proves barely more helpful. Initially hugely enthused by the man’s credentials over the phone when the black doctor gets off the train, and Newman asks him a few questions, Newman realizes he is perhaps even a liability. The third witness proves the best, but even this former nurse gets caught out by Mason’s defence team. Her testament hinges on a document that is in her possession, except that it is a copy, and copies can’t be used as evidence.

In each instance we have a central character that loses each step of the way. This isn’t the sharp intellectual exchange of intelligent minds; more a semi-incompetent lawyer up against a crack team. When Newman wins the case after failing to show his intelligence in every encounter, after showing slip-shod research throughout, and after an impassioned but far from elegant summing up, we might wonder what swayed the jury. If Lumet’s first film was very much about the twelve angry men making the decision; here they remain almost entirely anonymous, and their reasoning completely ignored. Perhaps this is Lumet and Mamet’s variation on what has been called optimal ignorance: Warren Ilchman’s term for a certain paralysis of action through too much information. Here the jury must surely act on moral grounds as opposed to reasoning procedures. They presumably can see that Mason’s super-slick team have all the best arguments, but that is not quite the same as the truth. Indeed when Mason looks like he will get the hospital off on a piece of legal minutiae (the issue of the photocopy) we may assume that the jury sees cleverness over honesty.

This is basically weak plotting if we view the film legally, where the best argument ought to win. But what if it isn’t about the quality of the argument – or for that matter the solidity of the craft – but cinema’s capacity to work with conflicting elements to give us a sense of life? The scriptwriting manuals are all very well for telling us what works on paper, but The Verdict works not because of the script nor strictly speaking despite it. It works, like many a film, on the basis of the intertwining of elements. Is it Lumet’s interest in justice, Mamet’s in power, Newman’s half-heartedness and Rampling’s ineffability all going towards making the film a work of contingent interest? Did those involved think through the implications of such a teaming: that Redford was initially lined up for the role suggests not, and these fortuitous contingencies are probably more common than we may think. After all, was Taxi Driver not a film originally to have been directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Jeff Bridges, and without a Bernard Herrmann score, a soundtrack Scorsese insisted upon? The elevated position of script gurus is consistent with a world where foreknowledge and guarantees are paramount. But if numerous screenwriting experts are busy ransacking old movies to see how they work narratively, maybe we need critics who at the same time are looking to show how film is a more contingent art form than that. Lumet would seem to agree. In his book, Making Movies, he says, “…on the best of movies a third intention emerges, which neither the writer nor the director can foresee. I don’t know why this happens but it does.” Would such contingency be lost under the strong influence of script guru predictability, and even some of Mamet’s own high-minded strictures? At one moment in Mamet’s On Directing Film he says, “If we don’t care what happens next, if the film is not correctly designed, we may, unconsciously, create our own story in the same way that a neurotic creates his own cause-and-effect rendition of the world around him, but we’re no longer interested in the story that we’re being told.” Maybe by Mamet’s reckoning this very article would be such an act of neurosis, but it is one that comes out of the very fact that the story he tells has not been especially well-designed, but is no less interesting for that.

 

©Tony McKbbin