THE VERDICT

By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet is a master filmmaker at shooting predominantly talkie films. In The Verdict by David Mamet, his best special effect is, at least, the just as legendary Paul Newman as washed-up alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin. Lumet opts to shoot Newman for the screen talent he is. Occasionally, his camera points up at Newman, who looks as if he will fall over. Lumet also makes Newman look great as he runs down a hallway, or with a stare of his familiar blue eyes. The chemistry of camera and performance are blended rhythmically.

Alcoholism has been depicted countless times, but Newman’s interpretation ranks at the top of the list. He can’t function without his drink whether it’s gaining a high score on pinball, flirting, reading a brief or even getting a fast protein fix by dropping an egg yolk in a beer. Paul Newman makes you wonder if Frank Galvin is going to pass out or fall asleep even while he’s barely practicing legal brilliance. He toes the line beautifully between coming undone and barely squeaking by. This is one of his best roles ever.

Frank is given a chance to salvage himself as goes up against the Boston Archdiocese and the hospital it owns in a case of medical negligence, who are represented by a conniving antagonist in the form of James Mason with his limitless resources, power, strategies and army of lawyers. If this were a silent film, I’d buy it with Mason twisting a handlebar mustache. He’s absolutely a man you love to hate.

The dialogue crackles against simply the inflection of vocals from Newman, Mason, an unexpected Charlotte Rampling as Galvin’s sudden love interest, a difficult judge played by Milo O’Shea, and Frank’s assistant played Jack Warden. The delivery of lines, the twisty double crosses, and conflicts play to the precision of great Shakespeare. So much so that when on the rare occasion these characters curse or the ominous cue of music steps in, it’s all shocking and applauded.

The settings are great for atmosphere too. Worn in leather chairs, polished cherrywood tables and courtrooms with their squeaky floors. This is a well-worn Massachusetts backdrop of legal reputation and intimidation.

Every member of the filmmaking team from Lumet to the cast, to the composer,Johnny Mandel, and David Mamet’s fantastic script have been thought out and measured to completion.

Some will say this film is dated (rotary phones, ladies’ hairstyles, wardrobe; year of release was 1982). I say its themes are still significant. Power is something that must always be overcome by a weak, flawed protagonist. Whether or not Frank Galvin can do it, matters not. It’s the struggle that’s important to follow in a film like The Verdict.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN

By Marc S. Sanders

People talk too much.

Ten minutes into Alan J Pakula’s film, that’s all I can think about. William Goldman’s dialogue heavy script pounds away at depicting Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s uncovering of the Watergate break in, and it shows that simply, people talk too much. So much so that just a stutter or a name in passing conversation will dig the hole deeper and deeper towards self-incrimination, and that of other accomplices. Once a source trips up, then a good reporter can pounce.

Names, dates, slamming doors, rotary phones, typewriters and papers fly fast and furiously during Pakula’s film and that’s what upholds the breakneck pace of the investigative journalism. In a film like this, a crime is depicted and investigated, only the words are the real weapons.

I don’t find All The President’s Men to be a history lesson in the corruption of Nixon’s administration. Rather, I only see what was necessary for Woodward & Bernstein to truthfully prove the corruption took place. The reporters, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, seem to run on endless adrenaline of coffee, cigarettes and fast food effectively showing their drive while donning loose ties, wrinkled shirts, and crumpled notepads amid unkept desks and apartments. It’s visually convincing. A story like this doesn’t sleep, nor does it take a vacation. A story like this makes a viewer feel like he/she is still up at 2am, catching a cab to meet a shadowy source in a haunting parking garage; thanks Hal Holbrook for Deep Throat (“Follow the money.”).

Redford has a great scene where Pakula never stops running the camera on close up for over six minutes. All that Redford is doing is dialing, and talking on the phone while maintaining two different conversations. I don’t know if this moment happened in real life but I imagine the best reporters in a pre internet phase had to hold out for opportune times like this to fall into their laps. The cut does not end and Pakula was instinctively wise to do that. The scene itself serves that harrowing pace. Less is more in a moment like this. Props to Redford for maintaining the statuesque momentum.

Equally so, Hoffman has a couple of good moments with Jane Alexander (his eventual costar in Kramer vs Kramer.). She beautifully depicts a victim of intimidating threat, and Hoffman must tread carefully with his questions by strategically letting himself into her home, puffing on a cigarette, sipping cold coffee, speaking softly and eventually getting out his notepad as she gradually breaks down her shell. Alexander doesn’t make it easy and so their scenes work so well in taut suspense of low whispers.

Nixon’s cohorts really are not the antagonists here. In essence, Goldman’s script (based on the reporters’ published book) welcomes the challenge of acquiring factual reporting as the overall conflict. This is best represented by Jason Robards’ portrayal of Post Editor Ben Bradlee. Robards won an Oscar, and he so deserved it. He wouldn’t give “Woodstein” a break until the truth willed itself out by the proper means that are necessary. He’s intimidating in the role but he’s open minded enough to not ignore the young reporters’ instincts. I love watching his scenes; the way he commands an office from a chair with his feet up or fidgets and writes with his red pen. When his boys finally get a solid piece, Bradlee’s character breaks for one moment to knock on a desk and clap his hands as he walks away from his men. They got it. He didn’t relent, and they finally got it. I love that moment. Simply marvelous.

All The President’s Men remains a favorite film of mine. The dialogue moves so fast that after seeing it a number of times I still haven’t connected all the dots, and yet that’s what I appreciate about it. I see something new every time.

12 ANGRY MEN

By Marc S. Sanders

This film lives up to its reputation.

This was the great Sidney Lumet’s first theatrical film, and for a project limited mostly to only a claustrophobic and hot room, it boasts a lot of talent; Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Lee J Cobb, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, EG Marshall.

For a black and white picture Lumet and his crew are effective at showing tiny details like sweat on brows and shirt stains, a broken ceiling fan, and the mental exhaustion of limited breathing space as twelve citizens debate over the guilt or innocence of a young man on trial for killing his father by stabbing. Lumet’s camera (just like when I watched The Verdict) is constantly traveling, even if it’s in a tiny confined space. He zooms in when he needs to and he changes angles to get the most of 12 different perspectives. Lumet keeps it interesting by changing up his use of lens. As the afternoon proceeds into early evening, the camera navigates more closely to the table they sit at. The men are uncomfortable, frustrated with each other, more impatient and more concerned with their consciences about sending a man to death. The actors do well with translating these factors, but Lumet sends the message home.

What I found most interesting is the different variations of how each juror eventually comes to changing his mind. Almost all of them arrive at that point in a new or different way. Credit goes to screenwriter Reginald Rose for that. Additional credit for the different variations of how the jurors repeatedly cast a vote; raising hands, notes, anonymously, not anonymously and so on. Rose changes it up each time to keep the viewers’ attention.

Rose’s script will only tell you so much. The attorneys don’t appear in the film, deliberations are done, we only get a close up of the defendant but there’s not enough material for a viewer to cast judgment. The film opens with the judge giving a boring routine instruction as to how the jury should proceed. He might as well be telling them how to complete an SAT exam.

Yet what we are treated to are the faults and overcomings of the human spirit. Ed Begley is a juror who gives a brilliant monologue that stereotypes the defendant’s ethnic background, though we never know what race or ethnicity he is. As he continues to rant, every other juror steps away from the table. Begley seems to get more ashamed of his thought process as he carries on, but he doesn’t stop until he’s ordered to by another juror. Amazing!!! In 1957, when Jim Crow and McCarthyism were on the horizon or rampant, this film was not having it. It’s the best scene in the film.

Henry Fonda is great as the one who only asks for sensibility. He adds weight to the case they are deliberating over that the others are sadly failing to recognize. A man’s life is in their hands.

I’d argue that the facts of the case and evidence presented carry very little complexity to what a real murder trial might offer. I’d also argue that what serves as a fulcrum to sway each vote is maybe a little too convenient (presuming the time it takes for one witness to walk or whether a witness wore glasses), but that doesn’t matter. What’s most important is whether each of these men can live up to the demand of recognizing reasonable doubt; the necessary requirement for a trial by jury. In that sense, 12 Angry Men succeeds.