by Dave Linn and Phyllis Deutsch
Cut, no. 29, February 1984, p. 65
THE VERDICT as social critique
I beg to differ with certain points made in Phyllis Deutsch's very witty and well-written piece on THE VERDICT (JC 28). Her depiction of the film as a “white knight against the system formula” is an oversimplification, and perhaps an unfortunate one.
The piece is absolutely correct in pointing out that Galvin is a very corrupt character functioning in a very corrupt system. Deutsch is likewise correct in identifying Galvin's breaches of personal and professional ethics within the context of the film — most notably jeopardizing his clients' wishes and welfare in the interests of his own self-aggrandizement. But she misses, despite this, the fact that Galvin, while not an altogether unsympathetic character, is not in any real sense a hero. His victory cones not through his own efforts so much as in spite of them. If there is a “white knight" in this film, it is not the lawyer, but the jury (i.e. the people) who somehow consistently try to do justice in the face of a corrupt and elitist legal system.
Deutsch's characterization of the film as a "fairy tale" is, I think, correct in a technical sense. In the real world, the defense, having succeeded in excluding all of Galvin's relevant evidence, would be entitled to a directed verdict — which would deny the jury a role in the proceedings. But the point of the fairy tale, which Deutsch explicitly misses, is that the people — the jury — will protect their own if they are given even the slightest chance of doing so, notwithstanding the ineptitude, corruption, and evil which permeate the lawyers and the courts. Looked at from this perspective, the film is a progressive piece rather than a reactionary one.
Even more unfortunate perhaps is Deutsch's failure to see the strength and complexities of the character Laura as played by Charlotte Rampling. As in her earlier role in THE NIGHT PORTER, Rampling portrays with masterful skill the dilemma faced by an ordinary and well-meaning person placed into a world which is so consummately evil that evil appears to become the sine qua non for survival. In THE VERDICT, Laura is presented as an idealistic young legal worker who is persuaded to act as hired gun for the corporate firm in the name of a greater good — i.e., so that the corporate firm will have money to provide free legal services for the poor. In the process, she betrays herself, her friend, and justice, and so suffers collapse. Here, the fairy tale is realistic. The corporate legal system has no place for idealists, and all idealists who tread therein are, in the film and in real life, bound to self-destruct. The fact that Laura is a woman, of which fact Deutsch makes much, is not relevant to this thesis. Implicit in Laura's experience as portrayed in the film is the corollary presented by Galvin's own prior (and parallel) idealism and fall from grace.
(Incidentally, Deutsch mentions Galvin's downfall as his having been falsely accused of jury tampering. My recollection is that he admitted to having been at least partially guilty of this — a fact of importance, since it extends the parallel between his own corruption and that of Laura).
The dilemmas faced by Laura are to some degree faced by every principled person who functions on a day-to-day basis within the legal system. Rampling's power is her ability to make us identify with her failure and despair as a cathartic device. Ultimately we come out of the theatre not as failures ourselves, but as people who are alienated and enraged by the system. A film like this, using Rampling's acting as a shock absorber for our own despair, can free us to feel renewed rage. Rampling's ability to do this is unique among U.S. screen actors in my experience, and I think she deserves a lot more credit than she's been given by mainstream (or left) reviewers.
Again, I would underscore that the moral of the fairy tale which is THE VERDICT is to seek justice not under law, but in spite of it.
An anti-woman film
I would like to believe, along with Dave Linn, that the hero of THE VERDICT is indeed "the people." However, there's no evidence for such a reading in the body of the film. Linn's contention that the jury's "guilty" verdict shows that "the people will protect their own" exists in a vacuum. My review demonstrated that the racist, sexist slant of the film completely undercut its pretensions to progressive politics. Given this reactionary context, the "guilty" verdict of the jurors can best be interpreted as a romantic sell-out on the part of the filmmakers.
Linn's analysis is tied to the de-sexing of the Charlotte Rampling role. He says that the fact that Laura is a woman is not relevant to his thesis. If this is so, Linn's leftist perspective is incomplete. The sex of human beings — in art or in life — always matters. Laura may be an idealistic young lawyer, but she is also a female who sleeps with Galvin, and whose betrayal of him therefore carries with it a range of nasty psychosexual implications. And of course, a man‘s punching a woman in the mouth (and drawing blood) is not the same as a man‘s punching a man. The power dynamic is completely different.
A film, a book, or anything else is not progressive if it is anti-woman. What Abigail Adams said to John prior to his assuming the presidency should be inscribed, forever, on the minds of male leftists: Don't forget the ladies!