The Verdict - Revelatory Set-Up

Thoughts On: The Verdict

A divorced, alcoholic and failing lawyer, Frank Galvin, takes on the case of a neglectful anaesthetisation by a renowned doctor.

This is a very good film. The strongest elements are the direction and character work. The directorial choices in framing and blocking throughout are interesting and add a meaningful layer to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill court-room drama. And in saying that we should pick up on the plotting, which is nothing special. The narrative moves forward in a predictable manner with the major plot points providing little tension or dramatic pull. In such, I mean to, in part, reference the plot twist which **SPOILERS** was obvious from the beginning with Laura surely being there to deceive Frank **SPOILERS OVER***. However, what elevates this film is its parallel running plots of character and story which build into a rather compelling film. As said, the plot of the story isn't much of a reason to see this film, instead see A Few Good Men, Philadelphia, Anatomy Of A Murder or Judgement At Nuremberg - each hold similar, but more distinct and memorable narratives. But, a good reason to see this film is in the cinematic portrayal of change in a character. Its intertwined into the narrative quite beautifully, but really shines through in the first five minutes. So, with The Verdict I want to talk about the opening.

From this opening shot comes through a great philosophy of character. What the light draws our attention to is the pinball machine and the mostly empty glass of beer. The depth in the image is muted both by colour and the maze of tree branches which render the background uninteresting to the eye. Moreover, the shadow spliced over the foreground further constricts the eye's wanderings. We only pay attention to the beer and pinball machine. What this does is define this silhouetted figure by the items around it - what's more of an interesting nuance of this still is Paul Newman's name--we get to have his role as actor defined before the role of the actual character who is still unknown to us. So, with the only things defining our character being the beer and pinball machine, we know he likes to drink and that he likes to indulge pointless games. This image then tells us of the character's will to waste his time, to fill it with meaningless, possibly poisonous, distractions. This is a great opening shot because it's called back to throughout the film as a way of assessing Frank's (the silhouette's) idea of meaning in his life and what he does. He usually plays badly, he does not enjoy the game in the beginning because he only wants distraction, he plays without a means to an end. This reflects his work as a lawyer - something we'll come to shortly - and suggests that he later finds a finite element to what he plays as a pointless game (both pinball and a court case) because he finds moral meaning in his vocations - he gets a high score, finding drive and a means and ends to what was a perpetually futile pursuit. That aside, after the credits run we jump into a shot of money that pulls to our first look at Frank as he then offers comfort and reassurance to a woman during a funeral. There's repetition of this funeral sequence and all the while we haven't been told anything concrete about his character. The philosophy of characterisation as echoed through from the opening shot now becomes clear. Frank is come upon through banality, we discover him as nothing interesting with ambiguous shots and scenes suggesting something of personage purely subtextually. What is happening is a delayed illumination. We're being coaxed slowly into the truth surrounding Frank, being lead down an ambiguous road before hitting a sign, sudden realisation of where we are and who we are with.

With Frank being kicked out of the funeral home, exposed as a drunk who frequents the bar, who lets the singular location define him early on, we start to see how broken he is, how abnormal his seemingly normal actions are. This is only emphasised by the movement into his office - where we find out he's a lawyer. And it's here where the opening ends for me. The point and purpose of this opening act are of misdirection and revelation. We're told of a seemingly normal character, given information that implies he's not the best of people and with the added notion of who he actually is - a crook and cowardly lawyer - we see context and truth, Frank as no more than an 'ambulance chaser'. This kind of characterisation is probably the most efficient and poignant means of telling an audience about your character - and something most noteworthy about this film. What is happening when we see Frank in ambiguous lights is that we're being led on a short mystery, we're invested in the images telling us his story as we wonder 'what is there worth?' and 'why are we being shown this?'. This kind of atmosphere is hard to sustain and is most effective during an opening because an audience is waiting to have the film define itself, they are trying to judge the narrative, anticipate what kind of movie they're about to see. This means you have significant quotient of their attention and so some amount of liberty to experiment with pace, character and narrative - but all under a very precarious guise of attentiveness that will quickly snap away if you make too many banal or poor moves. So, with a slow move towards the crux of Frank's character, his emptiness, his alcoholism, his corruption, we are not only invested in him and the narrative, but being mead into a more empathetic perspective. Essentially, with him being presented initially as a shell, as just a guy in a bar playing a game, we come to a theory of reflection. Characters with provided gaps--these gaps could be of their behaviours, the way in which we present them, not putting forth their face, voice, internal monologue, indicative splices of character--we are allowed room to fill ourselves in. For the same reason why silent film is so poignant (link here to a talk on this), or archetypes are so emotive, Frank as a person we don't immediately get all the facts on becomes someone we're wanting and willing to understand - we're willing to step into his shoes. This means that when we see him as a liar, a shady person trying to exploit old women at funerals, we don't immediately assume he's the bad guy, simply our broken protagonist. This point is emphasised further with symbols often associated with goodness (religion and law) often being juxtaposed with our broken protagonist as clear implimence of their wrong-doing, of them as antagonists - the bad guys.

What the overriding philosophy of characterisation inherent to the opening of this film then does is produce the illusion that we know Frank well, even though we've only seen snippets of his character over a few minutes. And that's where the poignancy of this technique comes. By teasing an audience with glimpses of character, by taking their hand and slowly leading them towards a revelation of a thematic crux of their personage (their core internal conflict) you are allowed to make explicit the purpose of the character, where his downfalls and shortcomings reside as to imply how he will change, whilst implying to a viewer that they are actively apart of this - that they have stakes in the outcome of the impending character arc. All in all, you've managed to set up a film and character by demonstrating their motivation and implying to the audience the plot's agenda. This is great writing as it's by and for the viewer, and in the case of The Verdict, lays down all solid ground work for narrative meaning and thematic subtext. It's made clear with the opening and conversation that segues into the nuts and bolts of the first act that this is a film about a change in Frank (as posed by the direct question 'what's going to change?') under a moral guise of action, under a question of: how do you act, how do you incite change, what can you do to turn things around?

And such is the rest of the film. But, whilst the great opening thins out into a mediocre plot and waning moments of character, what's laid down with the first 5-7 minutes are solid foundations, are what should be inspiration as to how to set up a character driven narrative.

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