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The Verdict

Director: Don Siegel. Screenplay: Peter Milne based on the novel The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill. Producer: William Jacobs. Executive Producer: Jack L. Warner. Directors of Photography: Ernest Haller, Robert Burks (uncredited). Music: Frederick Hollander. Art Director: Ted Smith. Editor: Thomas Reilly. Cast: Sydney Greenstreet (Supt. George Edward Grodman), Peter Lorre (Victor Emmric), Joan Lorring (Lottie Rawson), George Coulouris (Supt. John R. Buckley), Rosalind Ivan (Mrs. Vicky Benson), Paul Cavanagh (Clive Russell), Arthur Shields (Rev. Holbrook), Morton Lowry (Arthur Kendall), Holmes Herbert (Sir William Dawson), Art Foster (PC Warren), Clyde Cook (Barney Cole). Released: Warner Bros., November 23, 1946. 86 minutes.

Plot Summary

Immediately after a man is hanged for killing Kendall’s aunt, Grodman, who was responsible for the man’s conviction, learns the man was innocent. Grodman is forced to resign from Scotland Yard and is replaced by Buckley. Grodman and Buckley detest one another. But Kendall, a mine-owner, and Russell, a champion of Kendall’s mine workers, hate each other even more. One night, Kendall and Russell exchange death threats in front of their friends, Emmric and Grodman, as well as Kendall’s mistress, Rawson; and Grodman and Emmric witness Rawson threaten to have Kendall killed. The next morning, Kendall’s landlady gets no response when she knocks on his door. She gets Grodman to break it down. Kendall is murdered. Based on incriminating but circumstantial evidence, Buckley arrests Russell, who is tried and sentenced to death. Grodman searches for a woman who can clear Russell, but she has died. Left with no alternative to saving Russell’s life, Grodman tells Buckley that Kendall was the murderer of his aunt. Grodman drugged Kendall so he wouldn’t hear the landlady. Then Grodman killed Kendall after he broke down the door. Since Buckley failed to solve the mystery, Grodman revels in Buckley’s “humiliation and defeat.”

Commentary

Among the roughly 20 so-called “gaslight melodramas” that are considered U.S. film noirs, The Verdict is special in several ways.

First, although the movie has gaslight, it isn’t per se a melodrama. If it were, women and romance would be central, both to the crimes and the conclusion of the story. However, neither Lottie Rawson nor Mrs. Benson is critical to the plot; and two other women, Arthur Kendall’s aunt and Clive Russell’s aristocratic married lover, are mentioned but never shown. The three characters who dominate the film are men (Grodman, Emmric and Buckley). Furthermore, nothing in the story hinges on romance. For example, neither murder is committed because of love or jealousy.

Second, it is one of the best gaslight melodramas in terms of the noir style. For example, at one extreme is The Suspect, in which the style is present for a few minutes total. At the other extreme is The Verdict, which is nearly suffused in it.

A third way The Verdict is atypical is that it has a lot of light comedy. Scenes with Mrs. Benson, as well as Barney Cole, the burglar, and Robertson, the undertaker, interrupt an otherwise strong noir story and visual style. Interestingly, Israel Zangwill, the author the book on which The Verdict is based, later regretted how he subverted the mood of this locked room mystery. He said, “[T]he humor is too abundant. Mysteries should be sedate and sober. There should be a pervasive atmosphere of horror and awe such as Poe manages to create. Humor is out of tone; it would be more artistic to preserve a somber note throughout.” Alfred Hitchcock may often play up humor, but Don Siegel would have benefited by toning it down.

The Verdict was the first feature film Siegel directed. Considering the accusations leveled at him later in his career for being a misogynist, some might see The Verdict as early evidence. Other gaslight melodramas feature at least one important female character, for example, “strong” (but evil) like a femme fatale or “weak” (and too virtuous) like a woman in distress.

In The Verdict, as noted above, women hardly count. Since each of these three ways of presenting women is open to criticism, the treatment of women in The Verdict doesn’t necessarily prefigure Siegel’s later work. But the character of Superintendent George Edward Grodman does. Grodman is unswervingly committed to bringing criminals to justice — to rendering the verdict — by any means necessary. He is contemptuous of his superiors at the department. If he has to, he conducts his investigations outside official channels. He is both an agent of law enforcement and an avenger. Grodman boasts, “It’ll be quite a job to fill [my britches]!” Indeed, it took a quarter of a century before Siegel had someone who could, Inspector Harry Francis Callahan — Dirty Harry.