Frank Galvin (Newman) is a washed-up, alcoholic Boston attorney who hasn't won a case in years and trolls for clients at funerals. His friend and mentor, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden), gets him a medical malpractice suit about a woman rendered comatose during surgery with a guaranteed large settlement that will let her family put her in a nursing home.
However, a visit to the girl deeply affects him, and at the meeting with the Archdiocese of Boston to hammer out the settlement, he rejects the money, deciding that this is his last chance to save himself and resolving to fight it out. This, of course, displeases everyone, from the woman's family to Judge Hoyle (Milo O'Shea), who's presiding over the trial. Opposing Galvin for the defense is celebrity attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason), backed by a large and professional legal team.
To make matters worse, no one seems to be able to tell him what actually happened during the surgery. Also along the way he finds a lover in a woman named Laura (Charlotte Rampling), a complex relationship that isn't made any easier by the trial.
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, though in the end it lost in all categories.
This Film contains examples of:
- Affably Evil: Concannon takes a kindly and paternal approach with his staff, mentoring and joking with them like they're his students. In spite of being called "the Prince of Fucking Darkness" for his skills as a lawyer, he seems like a Villainy-Free Villain for much of the film, until it's revealed that he breached legal ethics by putting a mole in Galvin's office and he delivers a speech in which he says his only job is to win at any cost.
- The Alcoholic:
- Galvin. In one early scene his hands shake so badly that he can't pick up his drink, so he leans down to sip from the cup like a dog. The last scene hints that he's quit drinking—he is seen with a cup of coffee.
- Laura is implied to be one as well. She always matches Galvin drink for drink while they're together.
- Ambulance Chaser: One of the first scenes is Galvin researching the obituaries and sneaking into a funeral to hand his card to the bereaved, who promptly chew him out.
- Amoral Attorney:
- Concannon announces proudly that his only job is to win his cases. It's implied that he bought off Galvin's star witness and also recruited Laura to spy on Galvin right from the start. Morrissey notes that Galvin could easily get a mistrial for the latter stunt.
- Galvin and Morrissey try to hunt down the intake nurse by lying about their identity over the phone. Galvin ultimately resorts to breaking into Dr. Murphy's mailbox to locate the nurse, though only as an act of desperation.
- Judge Hoyle is heavily biased in favor of the Archdiocese right from the start. He pressured Galvin to take the settlement and hijacks the questioning of his star witness "to save time." Galvin calls him out on it only to be threatened with arrest and contempt of court.
- Anti-Hero: Frank Galvin is a pretty scummy attorney, and even after he rediscovers his thirst for justice he's not above using tactics of questionable morality, like breaking into mailboxes to track down people who don't want to be found.
- Batman Gambit: Laura apparently realizes that all she needs to do is show up at Galvin's watering hole and he'll hit on her, allowing them to spark up a relationship.
- Becoming the Mask: Laura is hired to seduce and spy on Galvin, but comes to actually care for him.
- Bittersweet Ending: Galvin wins the case, but is clearly devastated by Laura's betrayal. The final scene shows her calling desperately to him, who refuses to answer the phone.
- David Versus Goliath: One attorney representing a small family versus a large high powered legal team paid for by the Catholic Church.
- Disregard That Statement: Nurse Costello-Price's entire testimony is thrown out on a legal technicality, and both Concannon and the judge strenuously urge the jury to forget they ever heard it. In the end, however, it's pretty clear that the jury makes their decision based entirely on that witness's testimony.
- The Dreaded: Concannon is a fearsome attorney, also known as "The Prince of Darkness."
- Establishing Character Moment:
- The first several scenes all establish Galvin's various traits: he's a drunk who spends his time playing pinball at a bar and trolls funerals for clients, but the fact that he transfixes the regulars with a theatrical joke shows that he's got Hidden Depths.
- Ed Concannon's first scene is him preparing Dr. Towler for cross-examination. Not only is he absolutely grilling the man, nearly reducing the doc to tears, but he's doing it with a pleasant smile on his face.
- Foreshadowing: Morrissey requests that Laura pick up cigarettes on her way out several scenes before he goes looking in her purse for more cigarettes, discovering her secret.
- He's Back!: Galvin was a brilliant attorney prior to the events of the film. He begins the story at rock bottom, but he returns to his former shape.
- Hidden Depths: Galvin seems shameless and dull when we first see him, but he quickly shows more of himself as soon as he takes the case. He notices when he receives the settlement check from Bishop Brophy that the amount is rather awkward and divides a little too evenly into three equal shares, meaning he's being bought off. Then we get the first genuine show of emotion from Galvin when he sees the plaintiff for the first time. Galvin may be in a funk, but he's got a heart and he's no dummy.
- Hollywood Law:
- Galvin could have been sanctioned by the court for failing to communicate the settlement offer to the family, and could have additionally been held liable for malpractice. Courts have consistently held that lawyers have a duty to communicate all settlement offers to their clients before accepting or declining such offers. Galvin was not disciplined in this case, although he was confronted by his clients for not telling them about the offer of $210,000 that the Archdiocese had made.
- The defense could have been able to win at the close of Galvin's case by making a motion for "judgment as a matter of law" (i.e. the judge ruling in their favor as no reasonable jury could find against them). However that doesn't happen. Additionally, Judge Hoyle, who was obviously in the defense's pocket, could have issued a judgment notwithstanding verdict nullifying the jury's decision, if only Concannon had asked for it. Of course, Galvin would still have the option of appealing and getting a new trial based on the defense's misconduct in placing a mole in his office. And the longer this grinds through the courts, the more chance of the news media picking up the story, creating bad publicity for the Church. There's also the fact that judgments of this nature will only be sustained on appeal if it is determined that there is no possible way that a reasonable jury could have interpreted the evidence and the applicable law in such a way as to come to the conclusion that they did, which is a tough standard to meet.
- Judge Hoyle incorrectly rules that Nurse Kaitlin Costello-Price's testimony is inadmissible. Topping it off, the "best evidence" rule (that when witnesses testify to the content of a document, it must be produced) gets utterly bungled. The document is a photocopy that Nurse Price brings in showing that she altered an admissions form at Towler's order to cover up his negligence. To explain, the form is a photocopy of the original, and the best evidence rule requires that the original document be entered into evidence. The real problem was that the best evidence rule allows the exclusion of a copy of a writing; it does not bar a witness from testifying about what she wrote in the original document. Galvin does not even attempt to offer the document into evidence. Rather, he just asks the witness what she wrote in the document. Furthermore, there is an exception to the best evidence rule: when the original is unavailable owing to a bad act by the party against whom the copy would be offered. Here, the witness is claiming that she altered the original document under the threat of the defendant, but made a photocopy of the original before she did so. So in real life, the copy would almost certainly be admissible. This one can probably be explained as Judge Hoyle a) blatantly favoring the defense and b) not being a very good lawyer.note
- Jury and Witness Tampering: Galvin took the fall for this in the backstory, when the prestigious law firm he belonged to was playing shenanigans. He avoided criminal prosecution but it was the decisive turning point in his life, as he lost his position with the prestigious law firm and divorced his wife.
- Last Disrespects: At the beginning, Frank gets most of his cases by trolling strangers' funerals with his business card. He gets away with it once, but the second time, the dead man's son calls him out and has him removed.
- Left Hanging: The film ends with a drunken Laura calling Galvin's office, and Galvin sitting at his desk with his eyes closed, listening to the phone ring.
- MAD: "The Verdicch".
- Mamet Speak: Interestingly enough, Mamet limits his indulgences into this for the most part to a few scenes early on.
- The Mole: Laura, sent by Concannon to spy on Galvin.
- The Oner: A nearly four-minute scene without a cut or camera movement in which Galvin, panicked after his expert Dr. Gruber disappears, first calls the insurance company to try and get that settlement, and then starts desperately calling around for experts.
- Precision F-Strike: When Frank says Concannon is a good man, Morrissey snaps "He's the Prince of Fucking Darkness!"
- Quit Your Whining: Laura angrily shames Frank when he's panicking about the trial and regretting not taking a deal the hospital made his client.
- Redemption Quest: Galvin, rediscovering his idealism after letting his life go to hell.
- Scenery Porn: For admirers of grand old buildings. Filmed on location in Boston.
- Surprise Witness: Kaitlin Price, the surprise witness called by Galvin who reveals that Dr. Towler didn't look at the admittance form and then had her falsify it after everything went wrong. Galvin is allowed to call her as a "rebuttal," but that ultimately gets her testimony thrown out.
- The Unreveal: The bulk of the plotline is kicked off by Galvin's decision to go to trial to get a larger settlement than the Archdiocese originally offered. While it's implied that the jury awards Galvin a larger sum than he's requesting (which is implied to be several times greater than the original offer), the film skips the scene where the jury announces the actual figure.
- What the Hell, Hero?: The Doneghys confront Galvin when he goes to court without consulting them.
- Would Hit a Girl: Galvin, when he finds out Laura is The Mole. He slaps her so hard she gets knocked to the floor. As far as we see, it's the last interaction they ever have.