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Standing Ovation

Standing Ovation: Paul Newman in 'The Verdict'

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Standing Ovation: Paul Newman in 'The Verdict'
Photo Source: Robert Wilson

You know, so much of the time we’re lost.” So begins despondent lawyer Frank Galvin’s closing statement to a Boston jury in “The Verdict.” As the words exhaustedly slide from Paul Newman’s mouth we see a broken man. Broken, when the film starts, by drink and life, or probably life and drink to properly list cause before effect. But by the time he addresses the jury at the end of a grueling trial, Frank Galvin is beaten down by the vagaries of justice, by the power structure, and by circumstance.

“The rich win. The poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time we become dead, a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims, and we become victims.”

In the speech, which runs three minutes, Newman’s voice scarcely rises above a whisper. His gestures are mostly to lightly touch the lawyers’ table, then the rail of the jury box. His plea ends with the words “See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.” He scans the jurors with his eyes just once. He looks down, and then, as if embarrassed by the fleeting expression of earnest conviction, he raises his eyebrows and shrugs. He seems to have been made vulnerable not only by the expression of hope but by the asking of 12 strangers to hope with him. He cannot allow himself more than a moment to subscribe to the idea of justice when the universe has so clearly and consistently rebutted that notion. He knows, and he knows the jury knows, that the universal truth is that we are all going to be screwed over, and there’s nothing we can do to much ameliorate the screwing.

The words Newman says were written by a then-tyro screenwriter whose one early script credit was Jack Nicholson’s version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” I first encountered the words before I saw the movie, when I was a high school student auditioning for a role that contained courtroom scenes, John Proctor in “The Crucible.” I was reading through one of those books of short monologues, where I came across an italicized introduction to lawyer Frank Galvin and then the monologue.

“In my religion, they say, ‘Act as if you had faith. Faith will be given to you.’ ”

On the page the speech seemed impassioned and potentially rousing. And that’s how I played it, a lawyer delivering a stirring charge, imbuing his words with import, inciting a jury to action as he intoned:

“Today, you are the law. You are the law, not some book, not the lawyers, not a marble statue, or the trappings of the court.”

That sentence, on the page, ends with a period. I am sure I played it with an exclamation. A 16-year-old who watched far too many episodes of “L.A. Law” could not fathom it any other way. I did get the part of Proctor, probably mangled that doing some version of Jimmy Smits in 17th-century Salem, and forgot for a year or two about the source material.

But then I rented the VHS (of course) version of “The Verdict” and saw just how great Paul Newman’s acting was. Not just the speech but his entire performance, taking us from broken-down barfly to born-again idealist.

Frank Galvin’s argument wins the case, by the way. The jury essentially rejects the judge’s instructions, feels sympathy for Galvin’s client, and awards her a huge settlement. The finale is more a relief than a fist-pumping deliverance, played in the minor key that defines the film’s universe. It seems like the sky is overcast in every shot, whether the scene takes place in New York or Boston. Credit director Sidney Lumet with his usual mastery of tone and Newman for taking a world-weary character on the page and fleshing out his charisma and occasional hopefulness. Newman was nominated for an Academy Award for the role but lost, suggesting maybe there is no justice in the world.

Mike Pesca is a correspondent for National Public Radio and a panelist on the podcast “Hang Up and Listen.”

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