Story Structure: The Verdict (1982)
Screenplay by David Mamet Based on the novel by Barry Reed

Introduction:  A courtroom drama with some fantastic performances, sharp writing, and elegant direction by Sidney Lumet, The Verdict is another film that stands up to repeated viewings. 

Who’s Story Is It? Frank Galvin (Paul Newman)
 
Act Structure: 3 Act

Act I Basic Action:
Even during the opening credits, we learn a lot about lawyer Frank Galvin.  Dressed for business in a suit and tie, he wastes his day playing pinball and drinking at a bar before heading out to seek business from grieving families at funeral homes.  Worse than chasing ambulances, he’s chasing hearses, and doing it badly.  While on the surface he puts on a good face, telling jokes to barflies, we see his inner torment as he subsequently trashes his office, even smashing his law degree.  Hope arrives in his old law school teacher Mickey (Jack Warden) who arrives to prod him on a case he had set up for him, apparently a case of medical malpractice.  All he has to do is show up and take the check that the hospital, owned by the Catholic diocese, will inevitably cut.

Inciting Event 1: Frank cleans up and goes to visit his client – a girl in a chronic vegetative state, her life taken from her by bad doctoring.  Frank is moved by her condition. 

Frank meets with his client's sister and brother-in-law who have been dealing with her situation for the past four years.  They are stressed and need the settlement money in order to provide continuing care for her, as well as give them a possible fresh start.  We cut to the Catholic Bishop (Edward Binns) who is given Galvin’s background and we learn that he was nearly disbarred after a jury-tampering incident, fired from his law firm and divorced from his wife.  The Bishop wants to settle the case, for as little money as possible. 

Inciting Event 2: Frank meets with Dr. Gruber who convinces him that the doctors killed his patient by giving her the wrong anesthetic.  He agrees to testify for Frank. 

Frank is happy, realizing he has a good case, and celebrates at the bar where he meets Laura, (Charlotte Rampling), an attractive woman apparently there searching listings for an apartment.  Frank again visits his client in the hospital and takes pictures of her.  It seems to affect him deeply.  Later he meets with the Bishop who offers a check for $210,000.  Frank is struck by how easily the check can be divided into thirds (one of which is his contingency fee).   

Act I Turning Point: In a moment of conscience, Frank decides not to take the check.  He decides he can do better for his client by taking the case to trial.

Act II Basic Action: Frank meets with Mickey who is incredulous that he didn’t take the settlement.  Frank realizes that if he took the check he’s lost – just a rich ambulance chaser.  He asks Mickey for help on the case.  The substance of Act II is Frank preparing the case for trial and experiencing ups and downs.  His struggle is to win the case for the client.  Act II kicks off as we meet his opposition, the law firm headed by Ed Concannon (James Mason) the highly competent “Prince of Darkness” and his team of crack lawyers and researchers.  Concannon plants media stories building up the two doctors in the case in order to discredit anyone going against them.  As Frank and Mickey meet, they find that one nurse, Nurse Rooney, has refused to sign the deposition exonerating the doctors.  Frank again meets Laura at the bar and takes her to dinner, and later to his apartment.  Here, he explains that he sees this case as a personal redemption – maybe he can do something right -- and by extension make up for all that he’s done wrong.  The next day he meets with Concannon at the office of Judge Hoyle (Milo O’Shea) who tries to convince him to accept the offer.  Frank defiantly refuses, but later, when alone, we see his doubts as he berates himself: “dumb, dumb, dumb!”  Frank meets with the client’s  family who are shocked he didn’t take the deal.  Things get a little rough between the men.  Then, Frank finds his star witness, Dr. Gruber, has disappeared, likely paid off by Concannon, while Mickey says that Nurse Rooney doesn’t want to talk to them.  The ticking clock starts as Frank’s request to extend the trial start date is denied by the judge.  It begins next week.  Mickey tells a little of Frank’s back-story as he relates to Laura how Frank was set up to take the fall at his old law firm after he tried to do the right thing.  So we learn more here about Frank’s character.  He had tried to do the right thing before, and had it turn against him.  Next day, one of the defendants, Dr. Towler is prepped by Concannon and his team to be ready at the trial.  Frank finds a Dr. Thompson to testify for him, but when he meets the elderly man at the train station, he seems to be little more than a professional witness.  Frank tries to get to Nurse Rooney but she has no regard for him or other lawyers saying “you’re all whores.”

Hero's Low Point: As the trial is about to start, Frank confesses to Laura that he will surely lose.  She tries to get him to work, saying she can’t invest in failure any more.  But he hides in his own bathroom. 

Act II Turning Point: Frank decides to go to trial, no matter what happens, he’ll see this through. 

Act III Basic Action: This act is a bit longer than usual as, in his Final Battle, Frank tries his case before the jury.  Each attempt to undermine the doctors blows up in his face.  Under cross-examination by Concannon, Dr. Thompson proves to be an unreliable witness.  Then Frank does a poor job questioning Dr. Towler, discovering on the stand that his patient was anemic, which may have led to her condition.  We later see Frank’s desperation in that he says to Laura there will be no other cases if he loses this one.  This is THE case.  It’s revealed that Laura is a false-ally as we then see her with Concannon, taking a payoff from him in an attempt to revive her law career.  Frank and Mickey find that the admitting nurse Katlin Costello is missing; she had quit the hospital after the incident with his client.  Frank inadvertently gets Nurse Rooney to admit that Kaitlin is in New York.  Frank subsequently looks at Rooney’s phone bill and finds Kaitlin’s number, finding where she works.  He goes to see her in New York and asks her to help him.  Meanwhile, Mickey finds the check to Laura from Concannon and reveals this to Frank in New York.  Frank meets with Laura and, in payment for her betrayal, slaps her.  Back at the trial, Frank gets Dr. Towler to admit it would be criminal to operate on a patient if she had eaten one hour before surgery.  Frank calls Kaitlin to the stand and she testifies that as admitting nurse she indicated that the patient told her she ate one hour prior to admission, but Dr. Towler later demanded she change the record to nine hours.  This is why she left nursing.  But Concannon finds a way to have Kaitlin’s testimony struck from the record as it is based on a photocopy of the admissions form and not the original.  Frank makes his final summation, and tells the jury that “today, you are the law,” and that “there is justice in our hearts.”  The jury returns a verdict for the plaintiff, Frank's client, and asks the judge if they can increase the amount of settlement.   

Denouement: As Frank and Mickey leave the courtroom, they see Laura waiting.  Frank ignores her.  Later, after apparently drinking a lot, she calls him from her hotel room.  Alone in his office, drinking coffee, Frank ignores the ringing phone.

Hero’s Outer Need: Win the case for his client. 

Hero’s Inner Need: Redemption.  To put his past behind him and realize a better life, one that has a future.

Central Question: Can Frank win his case against the powerful forces stacked against him?

Unity of Opposites:  Concannon wants to win for the defendant.   Frank wants to win for the plaintiff.

Subplots: Frank’s romantic relationship with Laura.

Theme:  Redemption is possible, even for those of us who are the most lost.

Opponent: Ed Concannon, Bishop Brophy, Judge Hoyle.

Allies: Mickey, Kaitlin Costello

The MacGuffin: The admission form a the hospital 

Posted: 06.03.15


In the other files in this section, I have done an analysis of the story structures of several feature films.  My hope is that if you've learned something from this dialogue that you will show your appreciation by picking up my newest novel (link below).  And then let me know what you think of its structure! 

Houdini & Lovecraft The Ghost Writer