I don’t choose to be contrarian, but perhaps public taste has chosen the role for me. That Sidney Lumet does not have a distinctive cinematographic style is one of the primary reasons he is not considered an auteur director, similar to John Huston. Lumet made ten very good films—objects that last—and, though history (in this case, immediate Oscar-fever judgment), favors Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976) I would have to differ and choose The Verdict (1982) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), while 1973’s The Offence enjoys rarified standing as one of the most overlooked films of that decade. Some might choose Prince of The City (1981), but Treat Williams’s performance does not match the intensity of the film. Network’s cinematography is lackluster, though most everything else is perfectly fine, if not uncanny. Dog Day Afternoon’s camerawork—the explicit “form” of the motion picture art—matches the breakneck and sinewy story, but it is still following the script, not leading it, the way that Kubrick, Bresson, and Tarkovsky do.
The Verdict stands out to me for artistic but also superannuated reasons—it is a film of my childhood and I fingered its large Friday morning ads in the morning newspaper, among those for Tootsie (1982) and Gandhi (1982). The picture was shot in the winter of 1981-82 and watching it (in its Boston setting), I remember those incredible old Milwaukee winters of the late 70s and 80s, believing the tone of time (the early Regan years) contained a chiaroscuro, which I often filter with a spectral winter light. Certain scenes pop out of the mental rolodex, like dining in downtown Milwaukee at some ancient restaurant with dark woodwork redolent of Henry James and the harsh midday light streaming in across the establishment, as it appears to do during the final summation in The Verdict. There could be another reason for this—that the only markers of real events were photographs that always seemed to be processed in this rich no-flash light, though Roland Barthes fittingly called photographs “false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination…”
On release, the general thinking about it (a box-office hit) revolved around Paul Newman (what a performance!) and the appeal of the story, showing how long-shot odds are bucked and triumph overcomes tragedy—a drunk lawyer wins a case against the Archdiocese for the negligence of two well-respected doctors whose lapses left a young pregnant women in a vegetable state. These are perfectly acceptable aspects, but I believe they undersell what is still a breathing, beautiful work of art. Lumet and Polish cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak seem to have taken an abundant amount of time in setting up the visuals, and, searching the former’s book Making Movies, I found this:
I wanted as “old” a look as possible. Art direction had a lot to contribute…[b]ut light mattered enormously. One day I brought a beautiful edition of Caravaggio’s paintings to my meeting with Andrzej. I said, “Andrzej, there’s the feeling I’m after. There’s something ancient here, something from a long time ago. What is it?”… “It’s chiaroscuro,” he said.
In addition, Bartkowiak seems to have had a free-wheeling time with the camera setups like shooting from low-angles to highlight those cavernous and antique Boston buildings, whether courthouses, hospitals, or, finally, Newman’s office (his apartment has a high-angle shot of him in a chair). Then there are the incredible fish-eye close-ups of Newman and Charlotte Rampling, a love interest he meets at his neighborhood bar, talking in that lonely setting. The best scene in the film, about two-thirds through, doesn’t contain Newman. Lumet halfway obeys the Bressonian edict of “The effects of things must always be shown before their cause, like in real life,” by showing James Mason (the top lawyer of the doctors) giving a speech in his office to someone not revealed. He ingratiatingly starts, “I know how you feel. I know you don’t believe me, but I do” (the wonderful dialogue is written by David Mamet), the camera slowly following him as he pours drinks and writes a check, talking about what pays for the office and the booze. The check is then deposited into this unseen person’s purse (so it will be a woman) and a few seconds later we see it is teary-eyed Rampling just as Mason says, “You finished your marriage. You wanted to come back and practice law. You wanted to come back to the world.” He then gives her a drink and sits beside her, to deliver the punchline: “Welcome back.”
Rampling actually has a harder job than Newman because she pretends to be acting like she cares about him, when she’s simply paid to deliver information, yet, nonetheless, still falls for “old blue eyes”—this is already borne out in those closeups at the bar where she is wounded from intimacy (his openness about his failings) and then, most astonishingly, in a key scene between them where Newman thinks he’s lost on the first day of the trial. The film barely has non-diegetic music, but Lumet chooses to amp up some heavy discordant melodies which lessens the power of some very important words being aired, not to mention the spectacle that both actors create. Rampling, of course, holds all the cards and uses the grand psychological ploy of bullying the one he or she is deceiving (“You want me to tell you it’s your fault…You’re like a kid, you’re coming in here like it’s Sunday night, you want me to say that you’ve got a fever so that you don’t have to go to school…”), someone so weak they need the other person’s support, like their next breath. But Rampling is also starting to help him—to make him a better man—and this will echo in the film’s last scene, after she has been outed. He knows she has been good to him, kicked him in the ass—she is who he should be with—and who he is is a violent ill-tempered man who will slap-hit a woman. There is a facet of schadenfreude in the takeaway, to be summed up as: we probably don’t end up with the people who bring out the best and the worst in us—and for good reason, too much fire can’t be sustained.
It’s amazing Lumet and Newman got away with the ending as it is—Rampling calling Newman who doesn’t answer the phone but knows who it is and lets it ring and ring. It’s a brittle limestone tragedy rather than Shakespearean, the kind Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni patented years ago—it’s the Five Easy Pieces (1970) ending (the man simply doesn’t know how to love), which is to say, we are lost souls and no one is going to make us change our lives but us. And to further finagle the Rilke line everyone from Eckhart Tolle to William Gass approvingly quotes “You must change your life,” that transformation may happen off-screen but no one will see it – not even the main character will realize it for some time.
Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, LA Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and, Especially the Bad Things, stories were both published by Splice in 2019. Zerogram Press will release a new and expanded version of See What I See in April 2021–it was blurbed by Christine Schutt, Vijay Seshadri, and Phillip Lopate and was well received by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post.