Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Verdict (1946, USA)

The second Peter Lorre-Sidney Greenstreet film of that year, and the last of the total of ten they were teamed up in starting with The Maltese Falcon (1941). The Verdict is the third film version of Israel Zangwill’s novel The Big Bow Mystery, the others being The Crime Doctor (1934) and The Perfect Crime (1928). Perhaps the film’s most notable aspect in terms of film history is that The Verdict is one of the first feature-length movies directed by Don Siegel, after years of making montage sequences for other people’s films. Siegel, of course, went on to make such classics as (among many others) the original (and best) Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Ronald Reagan’s last and best film The Killers (1964), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969) and the legendary Dirty Harry (1971). And though The Verdict shows its B-film roots much more than Jean Negulesco’s bizarre Three Strangers (1946), it is still a very good film. (Arguably, the bare-boned rawness of how The Verdict is filmed in comparison to the fine polish of Three Strangers could possibly be attributed less to the budget than to the overall different styles of the two filmmakers, seeing how completely different the total ouvré of the two filmmakers are.)
A costume film, The Verdict takes place in the foggy city of Victorian London, around the time of Jack the Ripper. True, it is at first a bit of a shock to see Greenstreet & Lorre wandering around in a period setting, but one quickly gets used to it. The film opens with a visually pleasing tracking shot that slowly moves to a tower where we see a man ringing the bell that signifies the execution of some criminal and then moves on past him down to where Superintendent George Edward Grodman (Sydney Greenstreet) is leaving the police station just as a man he proved guilty is being hanged for murder. The next day it is revealed by Grodman’s co-worker and rival John R. Buckley (George Cloulouris) that the man hanged was actually innocent, which results in Grodman losing his job to Buckley. Soon thereafter, Arthur Kendall (Morton Lowry) a friend of Grodman and son of the woman whose murder the innocent man was hung for is found murdered in his locked room. The dislikable Buckley is convinced he’ll solve the crime in no time, but every turn he takes is the wrong one, so Grodman and his artist friend Victor Emmric (Peter Lorre) do their own investigating....
Featuring plot twists, excellent characterizations, dry humor and a truly unexpected ending, the acting in The Verdict is uniformly top notch. Greenstreet, who tended to simply walk through many of his films, manages to lend his character a bit more scope than normal, even if he remains oddly distant. Lorre first seems miscast as the fop artist Emmeric, a man as equally interested in women, wine and song as he is in finding out who killed his friend, but by the film’s end, he has more than made the part his own. Coulouris, whose long film career spans from Citizen Cane (1941) to Womaneater (1957) to Arabesque (1966) to Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is perfectly cast as the dislikable and conceited Buckley, a man who wanted Grodman’s job so badly that he let the innocent man hang on purpose. Joan Lorring, so oddly miscast in Three Strangers as Lorre’s frumpy love interest, is wonderfully appealing as Lottie Lawson, a good-time dancehall girl with an attractive figure who is briefly one of the main suspects. And if Rosalind Ivan is memorably entertaining in Three Strangers as the batty old widow, she is even more so in The Verdict as the hapless Mrs. Benson, landlady of the boarding house in which Kendall is killed and Emmric lives. Morton Lowry, best remembered as the evil John Stapleton in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), is not on the screen very long before his death, but in those brief moments, he shows enough aspects of his personality to make all that is later revealed about him believable. Lastly, B-movie regular Paul Cavanagh—whose career spanned forty years and whose face has graced projects as varied as Sherlock Holmes & The Scarlet Claw (1944), Bride of the Gorilla (1951) and Beat Generation (1959)—proves with his characterization of prime suspect Clive Russell that he was capable of acting much better than he normally tended to.
Considering how much everything seems to gel so well, from the acting down to the direction, one can’t help but wonder why The Verdict hasn’t been given greater acknowledgement as an interesting, worthwhile film—perhaps even a B-film classic. The Verdict may not feature the nonstop action of Don Siegel’s modern films, nor is it as multi-layered and adroitly made as his undisputed masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but as one of Siegel's earliest films it more than shows that the man behind the camera had visual flare to spare. Next time The Verdict on the Late Show in your town, watch it—you won’t regret it.

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