Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) has all the odds stacked against him. His career is heading nowhere fast, a wrecked personal life, his legal partner (Jack Warden) has had enough, and a whisky habit that could kickstart an economy. He is sinking into a hole near impossible to climb out of. Stanley Ellin in The New York Times Book Review wrote that “the book, by David Mamet, by digging deep into the mysteries of medical, legal and clerical practice, has everything going for it, and makes dramatically potent use of each element.“..
With near zero preparation, Frank takes on the might of St Catherine’s hospital, two eminent doctors, the trial judge, and a slick city legal team headed by Ed ‘prince of darkness’ Concannon (James Mason). The case: A woman is in a coma after a routine delivery went wrong. Frank takes some undercover photographs, as he does so, he realises her tragedy, and the issue becomes more than money. The outcome depends on a key witness who won’t testify, and Frank doesn’t know why. Despite legal inaccuracies, the most obvious when Frank fails to tell the family about the Church’s settlement offer, the tension builds scene by scene.
This courtroom drama involves you on every level. You feel you need Frank to win, yet the despair of the patient’s family is your despair. In a sense, justice itself is on trial. Does everyone and every principle have a price? Can a jury be trusted to see the issues in a complex case?
It is gut-wrenching when we finally realise Laura (Charlotte Rampling) isn’t all she seems, the implication is she motivated him to win ( ‘I don’t do failure!’) but even so, we want things to work out for her and Frank. Trouble is, he never once considers doing without his whiskey. Instead, he uses the booze to steady his nerves, to celebrate his small triumphs, and to give him the courage to face the world. While most films would resort to the cliché of having the character quit the booze cold turkey as part of the victory, not Frank. This is no celebration of alcoholism, just a realistic portrayal. He may be reprieved as a lawyer, but his personal life will have to wait a little longer!