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It takes Newman longerseven years, he figuresto know whether his movies are winners or not. His acting in The Verdict is brilliant and solid and, what is more, brilliant in the right direction. He plays a boozy Irish-Catholic lawyer, who is on-screen for nearly all of the film's 125 min., accurately enough to be utterly convincing, with enough restraint so that the audience does not get a hangover, and sympathetically enough so that he reaches out, shakily, and touches heroism. Frank Galvin is a formerly bright and formerly young Boston attorney who was railroaded out of his law firm by a crooked senior partner. He took to what in Boston is called the drink and fell apart. Galvin has had five cases in three years and has lost four. The fifth is what we are watching: a suit for damages against no less than the Archdiocese of Boston, brought by the impoverished sister of a woman who was given the wrong anesthetic by eminent doctors at a Catholic hospital and left in a coma.
The lawyer for the archdiocese (James Mason, who can give to a three-piece suit more menace than was radiated by Darth Vader's armor) suspects that the doctors blundered. On his recommendation, the archbishop offers Frankie's client $210,000. "When they give you the money it means you won," says his old legal mentor Mickey Morrissey (a gallant old wreck superbly played by Jack Warden). But Frankie, without consulting his client, decides to try the case and bring the guilty doctors to punishment.
The details of plot and motivation progress slowly and are often unbelievable. Director Sidney Lumet has over-directed Mason's chorus of legal underlings, who smirk absurdly whenever he cooks up one of his nasty stratagems. What we are left to admire is fine, dark photography of the brown, guilt-stained marble in the gut of a Boston courthouse, and of Boston slush turning blue in whiter twilight; Warden's humane old counselor; and Newman. His voice has the breathy rasp of a drinker, his walk the uncertainty of a strong man going down. We see him playing pinball in a darkened bar, his shirt clean and his tie carefully knotted; we see him tenderly embracing a drinking lady, played wanly and sadly by Charlotte Rampling, as each of them carefully holds a full whisky glass.
The journey to this poignant, uneven movie, through a succession of worse and better ones, began in Cleveland Heights, a comfortable suburb of Cleveland, where Paul was born in 1925. He was the second son of Arthur S. Newman, a prosperous Jewish partner in a sporting-goods store, and Theresa Fetzer, a Hungarian-descended Catholic. By the time Paul and his brother Arthur, now 58, a film production manager living in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., were children, Theresa was a Christian Scientist. Paul's exposure to that faith did not make any lasting impression (he has followed no religion as an adult, but calls himself a Jew, "because it's more of a challenge"). At 5 ft. 10 in. and 145 lbs. he is a fair-size man, but he was tiny as a boy, and, he says, "I used to get the bejesus kicked out of me regularly in school." The result wasn't any artistically fruitful psychological trauma, as far as he knows; it was that he learned to anesthetize himself from pain. As he observes now, "That isn't a very