Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the Oscars airing on Sunday, we look back at Best Picture nominees that should have won.
In Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman, that stubborn charmer, makes a sport of eating 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour. Fifteen years later, in The Verdict, he’s dropping eggs into his beer to chase off his hangover. His movie-star charm remains, but Newman adeptly downplays it—his charisma more like a faint twinkle than its usual megawatt glow.
He plays Frank Galvin, an alcoholic ambulance-chaser who looks too worn out to actually chase ambulances; instead, he pokes his head into funerals, trolling for business in between drinks and pinball games at his favorite bar. But when he’s preparing to settle a medical malpractice case against the Boston archdiocese, he gets a movie-ready attack of conscience and decides to take the case to court. The Verdict is a legal thriller, then, but an uncommonly methodical and observant one that underplays its big twists so that they don’t feel like jacked-up manipulations. The opposing counsel (headed by James Mason), while manipulative and imposing, never crosses the line into cackling evil. Their ass-covering is more banal, but just enough to re-spark Galvin’s sense of justice.
Though screenwriter David Mamet writes some chewy lines, director Sidney Lumet balances out any pulpiness with a somber mood, making sparing use of the musical score and creating a Boston awash in brown, beige, and gray; the whole city looks like a dusty law library. Throughout, Lumet frames his material with simple but effective touches. He shoots Newman’s opening statement wide, further back than the jury box; later, his closing statement starts from a similar vantage before pushing in, capturing a Mamet-penned speech in a single take.
The Verdict was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1982 among several other strong examples of big-studio craft. Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie, like Lumet’s film, would have made worthier winners than the Academy’s choice of Gandhi—the most Oscar-friendly movie in the field, but not the best. The Verdict is a less joyful experience than E.T. or Tootsie, but it offers an Oscar-friendly routine—movie star, straightforward filmmaking, courtroom drama, redemptive arc—with greater restraint than most. But there’s just no out-awarding an epic historical biography.
Availability: The Verdict is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix.