The previous film adaptations of Israel Zangwill's novel had modernized the Victorian story to the present: Perfect Crime (Bert Glennon, 1928), and The Crime Doctor (John S. Robertson, 1934).
A Classic Films print without subtitles viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Detectives on Screen), 30 March 2014
London, 1890. Settings include Scotland Yard and the Highgate Prison.
In his first feature film Don Siegel already displays an interest in matters of the law - and the matter of a police officer taking the law into his own hands.
The Verdict was the ninth and the last film teaming Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, who had first been cast together in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon. The Verdict was the only film where the duo received top billing. Greenstreet's film career had started in The Maltese Falcon, and it lasted only eight years.
It is based on the first novel in the "locked room mystery" genre, Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery, with precedents since Biblical times, most importantly Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin mystery "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", and followers by the hundreds, including Gaston Leroux's Le Mystère de la chambre jaune, and the entire oeuvre of John Dickson Carr.
Even the top burglar of London is called to examine the case, and even he cannot figure it out.
The film starts with a quick succession of tragic events. An innocent man is hanged. The key witness of the defense, Rev. Holbrook, with a solid alibi for the convict, returns too late from New South Wales, New Zealand. There had been an attempt to locate him in Wales. The investigator, superintendent Grodman (Greenstreet), is forced to resign in disgrace after thirty years of honourable service. He is immediately replaced by a haughty successor, Buckley (George Coulouris), who does not even bother to conceal his glee (Schadenfreude): "no more such tragic mistakes now that I'm in charge".
Some time later, the true murderer, Kendall, a Tory Member of the Parliament, is found dead. Kendall, a notorious philanderer, had murdered his aunt who had threatened to cut him off from her will, framed another man, and fed false evidence to Grodman and his best friend, the artist Victor Emmric (Lorre). (I borrow here some expressions from Dennis Schwartz's apt remarks in Ozu's Film Reviews, 25 Jan 2011.)
The prime suspect is Russell, a liberal Member of the Parliament, who has had a vicious row with Kendall the night before, heard by everybody in the neighbourhood. Russell lives in the same house as Kendall, as does Emmric, while Grodman lives on the opposite side of the street. Awakened by the landlady, Mrs. Benson, Grodman breaks into the locked room of Kendall, who has not reacted to Benson's calls. The police is alerted, led by Buckley, to investigate the murder.
The locked room mystery is so puzzling that one by one we start to suspect every character in the story. Richard Aldarando in his Don Siegel book stresses that in contrast to the previous film adaptations this one maintains the Victorian period atmosphere, and Siegel uses the period for maximum impact: the almost impenetrable fog, the over-furnished rooms, and the climate of moral laxity personified by the music hall singer Lottie Rawson (Joan Lorring).
Aldarando points out that Siegel proved his capacity when he compensated with thick fog deficiencies of art direction and created high tension in sequences staged in a single room. He finds Siegel's thrilling jury sequence a forerunner to Twelve Angry Men. From Michael Curtiz, one of his mentors, Siegel learned how to express menace via shadows.
The Victorian atmosphere is also emphasized by the motif of the bells of the Big Ben ringing in the beginning and the end of the film. The flag appears as a sign of death. "May his soul rest in peace". When Grodman leaves his office in disgrace, he takes with him only his letter of assignment with the initials V. R. (Victoria Regina).
Interesting features of the film include the artist Emmric's habit of sketching caricatures of everybody. The montages, now no longer created by Siegel, himself, are still quite good.
The approach is very dramatic. Frederick Hollander's thundering score is heavy and ominous. The weak link of the cast is Rosalind Ivan as Mrs. Benson. She exaggerates and contributes to a hysterical and overblown tone. But also Grodman's nightmare sequence, with his inner voice speaking, is overdone. "Ever since he has been a man in a daze". "You are brooding too much", comments Emmric.
A modern viewer may read into Grodman and Emmric aspects of a friendship that dared not speak its name.
Thanks to Greenstreet and Siegel there is a true sense of tragedy in The Verdict. Greenstreet interprets Grodman's tragic agony with a force of conviction. This kind of story would have been classic Emil Jannings or Orson Welles material: it's about a mighty man who perishes utterly. Greenstreet responds to the challenge memorably.
The print is clean, intact, and complete, at times with a feeling of being slightly duped, but as a whole providing a quite good film experience.