Story Development and Structure in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict: A Study in Three-act Structure
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The Verdict, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by David Mamet, is an example of classic Hollywood screenwriting. It follows the typical three-act structure, composed of exposition, confrontation, and resolution. Exercise
The first act, which takes up the first quarter of the film, provides exposition, an introduction to the characters, the main plot, and the subplot of the film. In The Verdict, we are first introduced to Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), the main character of the film. It utilizes a "regular day" opening. This opening establishes the setting of the film--Boston in winter--and the daily routine of the Galvin, and it reveals key aspects of his character. The audience learns the Galvin is a down-on-his-luck attorney, who visits funerals to try to drum up wrongful death business. This practice also establishes Galvin's lack of scruples as he pretends to be a friend of the deceased in order to approach grieving family members. He is a kind of con man. His profession suggests that the genre of the film will be a courtroom drama. This exposition also shows that Galvin spends much of his time drinking in a local bar, further the sense of dissolution about him. The audience then sees Galvin visit his run-down office where the inciting incident takes place.
Galvin's old mentor Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) visits Frank and reminds him of a case Mickey has arranged for him. The main plot of the film will revolve around this case, confirming the genre. This incident not only introduces the main plot of the film, but it teaches more about Galvin and his relationship to Mickey. The implication is that Mickey has been acting as a kind of crutch for Galvin for some time, procuring work for his friend. This incident also suggests that Galvin is not reliable because, although the case is rapidly approaching, he has not done any work on it.
Act one of the film also includes the introduction of the romantic subplot as Galvin tries to pick up Laura (Charlotte Rampling) in his favorite bar. Although Laura initially seems rather aloof, she soon becomes romantically involved with Galvin. This plot will run parallel to the main plot and act in counterpoint to it, just as the character of Laura will act in counterpoint to Galvin. It also adds an emotional side to the film.
The first plot point, a minor reversal that occurs near the end of act one that complicates the main plot and sets up the potential for confrontation in act two, happens when Galvin visits the hospital to see the comatose Debra Ann Kay. Seeing her causes him to reevaluate his position in the case. Instead of wishing to settle and get a quick win, which he desperately needs, he is struck by the injustice of her position and decides he wants to go to trial. This action will also provide him with some sort of salvation, by fighting for this helpless woman he will establish in himself a sense of his own worth.
Once Galvin decides to go to trial in the case, he must face and overcome multiple obstacles. With the introduction of his first obstacle, the legal team opposing him in the case, act two of the film begins. Act two, which comprises the middle half of the film, shows Galvin confronting multiple obstacles. Many of these obstacles exist before the action of act two gets underway. The first of these is the opposing legal team, which has seemingly endless resources in terms of labor and time, while Galvin has little money and only Mickey to help him on the case. Galvin must also deal with the fact that the lead opposing attorney, Concannon (James Mason) has a rather cozy relationship with the judge (Milo O'Shea), who proves to be uncooperative and unsympathetic to Galvin's plight. Galvin must also fight the media exposure that Concannon and his firm have garnered for their cause and combat the force of the reputations of the hospital and the doctors who supposedly gave Debra Ann Kay the wrong anesthetic. Galvin must also overcome internal obstacles: his willingness to think of himself as a victim, the fact that he has attached such great importance to this one case, and his own rusty trial techniques.
As act two continues, Galvin runs into more obstacles. Early in the act, he faces his clients, who are irate that he did not settle and take the original offer by the opposition. Then, Galvin's star witness, Dr. Gruber, is bought off by Concannon and disappears. The replacement for Gruber is an inexperienced, black doctor, who has a record of testifying in similar cases, all factors that may compromise his credibility in the eyes of the jury. Finally, an obstetric nurse who may have key information to aid Galvin's case refuses to testify or even talk to him. At the midpoint of the film, the spot where the main character usually begins to doubt his/her ability to overcome the obstacles he/she must confront, Galvin goes to Laura's hotel room and is overcome by self-doubt, resulting in a panic attack.
The second plot point, a major reversal that makes the outcome look bleak for the protagonist, comes at the end of act two when it is revealed to the audience that Laura is working for Concannon. Here, the subplot and the main plot converge.
Act three, the resolution, which comprises the last quarter of the film, begins as Galvin travels to New York to find Kaitlin Costello (Lindsay Crouse), a potential witness, and Mickey meets him to reveal that Laura is a spy. As the act progresses, the film reaches the climax, the highest point of dramatic tension in the film, which eventually leads to the resolution of the story. In The Verdict, the climax comes when Kaitlin Costello testifies on the stand revealing that the hospital and doctors were indeed culpable, and yet the judge throws out the testimony. The audience is left in suspense as to what the jury's verdict will be after the testimony is thrown out. The main plot of the film is resolved when the jury sides with Galvin and his clients, recognizing the truth of the situation over the legal technicality that gets Kaitlin Costello's testimony stricken from the record.
Although the film resolves the main plot with the jury's verdict, the subplot remains open. At the very end, Laura, drunk and down-and-out as Galvin was at the beginning of the film, attempts to reach out to Galvin. She calls, but he does not answer. This last sequence was not in the original script, which ended with Galvin seeing Laura as he leaves the courtroom. The addition of this new ending makes it clear to the audience that Laura and Galvin do not live happily ever after together suggests that no matter how much Galvin is grown over the course of the film and how far he has come since the beginning he is not ready to accept this earlier version of himself, which Laura has become. Not only is Laura's position left unresolved, Galvin's redemption remains incomplete until he is able to face what he was.
This lack of total resolution represents a break from the classic Hollywood story structure that the film had followed up to that point, suggesting a potential for variation and flexibility within a narrative structure that may initially seem exceedingly rigid. The Verdict proves that even within the confines of the three-act structure, a film can be intellectually involving, complex, and innovative, reinforcing the durability of that structure.