Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Verdict "I'm Her Attorney"

Ugh....sorry to go so long between posts. My ancient laptop finally died and I have no funds to get another, so blogging has become really tough for the time being...

Anyway, here's a great scene from "The Verdict" starring Paul Newman and directed by Sydney Lumet. It's been a while since I saw it so forgive me if I'm a little off here, but here's the setup: Newman's a lawyer who's been hired by the family of a woman who, during a routine surgery, was turned into a vegetable by an anesthesiologist who carelessly gave her the wrong medicine. The family wants damages from the doctor so they can pay for her expensive medical care. Paul Newman is an alcoholic has-been disgraced lawyer who, these days, only tackles easy cut-and-dried cases like this - basically an ambulance chaser. For him the case starts out just representing a quick settlement and some money, and he wants to just settle it quick, grab his share of the cash and move on.

This scene, however, is a turning point. As he goes just to grab some quick Polaroids of the injured woman to show the jury for sympathy, he unexpectedly comes face-to-face with the real tragedy of this victim. Suddenly the fact that this woman's life has been totally destroyed becomes real to him. You can see it in Paul's acting really well, which is amazing, of course, but the real reason I wanted to share this scene was two other elements that I think are really smart.

The Polaroid photos are a great, great tool here. The fact that Lumet doesn't show us the girl until we see her in the photos works well, first of all, so we get the full weight of her situation by having to wait - and getting more and more curious - about what Newman is looking at. The long scene where you're just watching the photos develop - slowly - is an awesome metaphor for exactly what is happening here: his long, slow realization that she is a real person who has suffered a terrible blow and she has no voice of her own. This isn't just an open-and-shut quickie case, there was a real injustice done here. This woman can't fight for herself and she needs someone to fight for her, to bring her doctor to justice, and he's the only guy who can do it.

The Polaroids are a brilliant way of showing this idea, and yet it would be so easy to present that idea in a forced and fakey way, but Lumet has such a deft touch that it doesn't feel unnatural at all.

The end of the scene is really amazing too. All through the movie, he's just referred to this as just a quickie case and that he's going to rush through this one and get on to the next. He never really shows any interest in this woman or her problems before this point, he's lost all passion and interest in the law and it's become just a way to make a quick buck to him. Throughout the movie he never refers to himself as an attorney, much less her attorney. So when the nurse asks him to leave the room, his simple answer of "I'm her attorney" has a much deeper meaning. The surface meaning is simply "I don't have to leave this room, I have a right to be here" but the deeper meaning to the audience is that he has had a revelation, that he has been re-energized by this woman and her plight, and that he is now going to fight for her, as her attorney, and do his best to get justice for her. This visit to her hospital room, which he thought was a routine stop to get photos of her, has unexpectedly touched him and become a turning point in his life.

The most impressive aspect of all of this is how naturally all this is accomplished. The idea of using a polaroid developing to suggest his slow realization and the way the simple statement "I'm her attorney" are both simple ideas that come off as very organic and natural but are very powerful and effective. It's always tempting for filmmakers to make sure they hit their "important" ideas over in a way that nobody will miss and get very heavy-handed with them. But Lumet found a way to make natural things that are happening in the scene have a much deeper, more profound impact by the way they are presented.


Oneliner said...

What a great performance! If only GANDHI hadn't come out in '82, Newman would have gotten that Oscar a few years earlier.

Jason Fittipaldi said...

Great post and a great clip! Thanks for sharing.