Archive for the ‘courtroom dramas’ Tag

Helter Skelter (1976)   Leave a comment


On July 20, 1969, engineers at NASA realized a decades-old dream and landed the first manned mission to the lunar surface. As 500 million people watched, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Less than three weeks later, on August 9, another group realized their dream when they broke into the home rented by Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, and massacred five people.

Outside the scene of the Tate murders, 10500 Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles.

The reasons for those murders and two more on August 11 were not typical ones. Sharon Tate and Voityck Frykowski didn’t welch on a bet.  Abigail Folger and Jay Sebring didn’t steal from the wrong people. Steven Parent wasn’t running around with the wife of a jealous man. Rosemary and Leno LaBianca didn’t get caught in a drug deal gone bad. Their killers didn’t get caught mid-burglary and decide to off the witnesses. No, what keeps us talking about the murders in Los Angeles that August is the bizarre motive and the even more bizarre people who thought it up.

Spelling counts.

Vincent Bugliosi, the District Attorney of Los Angeles County at the time, prosecuted members of the Manson family for the seven murders and wrote, along with Curt Gentry, the brilliant true crime book, Helter Skelter about his experienceThe made-for-television movie of the same name doesn’t stray far from the book and that’s a good thing.  The book is a marvel of true crime/legal reporting. The film leaves out some details. It would have to or it would be ten hours long. In his book, Bugliosi spends a lot of time discussing his methods and the legal particulars of the case.

George DiCenzo and Vincent Bugliosi

Director Tom Gries (Will Penny) keeps the story moving forward and makes you want to learn more.  George DiCenzo has the authority to play Bugliosi and I when I think of Charles Manson, I picture Steve Railsback. He IS Manson. It’s–if you’ll pardon the expression–witchy.

“I said no olives!”

I remember seeing this on TV when it first aired. This was the time when everyone watched whatever big TV movie was on that week. Everybody talked about it. I know I couldn’t look away. Hearing Charles Manson’s theory for the first time was chilling. It was almost as frightening to realize that this scary little man could convince a group of lost people to kill total strangers for no reason. Highly recommended.

One man’s family.


The Verdict (1982)   Leave a comment


“There are no other cases.  This is the case.”

Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a drunken, bottom-feeding lawyer, chases hearses instead of ambulances. When he’s not trolling funerals for clients, he’s drinking his breakfast at a local Boston pub. Even his best friend, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) has had enough.

Morrissey arranges for Frank to take a simple malpractice case, settle it, and get back on his feet, but eighteen months after taking the case and within days of the trial, Frank has done nothing to prepare.


Frank even cons the family of the victim. During a meeting with the victim’s sister and her husband, he sits on a desk, clucking and feigning empathy while doodling dollar amounts on a legal pad. After the meeting, Frank visits the victim, Deborah Ann Kaye, who lies in a hospital in a permanent vegetative state. She lapsed into a coma during childbirth 4 years earlier. Her family believes she received the wrong anesthetic. The hospital, a powerful establishment run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, claims complications and inaccurate statements by the now comatose woman led to her coma and the loss of her child.

While taking Polaroids to legally blackmail the hospital into settling, Frank does something unexpected. He sees Deborah Ann Kaye. After that, he can’t bring himself to settle. During a meeting with the Bishop (Ed Binns), Frank says, “If I take the money, I’m lost.” Frank decides to take the case to trial because it’s the right thing to do. The scene in which he tells Morrissey of his decision smacks of Mamet. Newman says, “They killed her.  They’re trying to buy me.” Morrissey says, “That’s the fuckin’ point.” Morrissey reminds him who the defense attorney is and Newman admits he’s good. Morrissey says, “Good!  He’s the prince of fucking darkness! He’ll have people testify she was waterskiing in Marblehead last summer.”


James Mason as Concannon is the horned one and proves it in his bloodthirsty preparations for the trial. Concannon’s team of attorneys builds a case from every angle. They use connections at newspapers and the local PBS affiliate to plant stories about the goodness and competence of the doctors. They pay off Frank’s star witness. Concannon has an even nastier trick up his sleeve that almost derails the case, but Frank soldiers on.

Once at trial, we see just how outgunned Frank is. His star witness AWOL, Frank finds another to take his place only to see him discredited on the stand. Even the judge, (Milo O’Shea), clearly favors Concannon. The deck stacked against him, Frank puts his head down and continues with the case.


The Verdict does the David and Goliath thing without hitting you over the head with it and we watch Frank lift himself up from the gutter and fight to stay up. His mantra, “There is no other case. This is the case.” serves as a pep talk he gives himself to keep from giving up or giving in.

Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman made a beautiful film about a tortured soul seeking redemption. A bunch of A-listers wanted the Frank Galvin part and Richard Zanuck and David Brown went through several screenwriters and directors before choosing the Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, David Mamet combo platter. It works. Lumet, no stranger to courtroom dramas or dialogue-heavy films, knows how to make a conversation between people sitting in chairs dynamic. Fail-Safe and 12 Angry Men proved that.  The Verdict, a smaller, less world-shattering film still has me on the edge of my seat every time I see it and I already know how it ends.

paul back
Part of that excitement stems from the talented character actors who flesh out the film.  Along with Mason, O’Shea, and Binns, Roxanne Hart, James Handy, Julie Bovasso, and Charlotte Rampling in a wonderfully restrained performance, make The Verdict ring true. Only Lindsay Crouse disappointed me. I liked her before she got on the stand, but her trial demeanor seemed a bit overdone. Jack Warden, on the other hand, had me believing he lived in the world of back room card games and Bushmill’s for breakfast. He didn’t get enough screen time.


All that talent aside, the film belongs to Newman. He goes from sleazy to earnest to desperate to inspiring and a lot of places in between. His moods turn on a dime. One second he’s buying the boys a round and the next he’s sobbing in a hotel bathroom. You can’t take your eyes off him. Dominating every scene, Paul Newman has you wondering what will happen and how he’ll react to it. He also makes you care. Even as the shyster lawyer at the beginning of the film, Newman has you wondering what made him this way. His summation to the jury at the end of the trial shows both his world-weary sadness and his earnest faith. Though he would win the best actor Oscar four years later for The Color of Money, Newman deserved it more for this lower profile tale of loss and redemption.

Run out and see this film.



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