As Frank Galvin, the misbegotten inspirational hero of Sidney Lumet's imbecilic courtroom melodrama "The Verdict," Paul Newman takes sanctimonious satisfaction in impersonating the sorriest excuse for a crusading attorney since Anne Bancroft misrepresented Margaux Hemingway in "Lipstick."

Introduced as a kind of Rocky Balboa of the legal profession, a rummy Boston hearse-chaser (even ambulance chasing is too good for him), Galvin supposedly redeems himself by seizing on a crumb of a malpractice case passed on by a solicitous colleague named Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden). Instead of agreeing to the damage settlement offered by counsel for a Catholic hospital where an expectant young mother was reduced to a coma four years earlier, Galvin relies on an unsubstantiated accusation of incompetence to rationalize going to court and proving malpractice to the satisfaction of a jury.

In taking this implausibly rash step, Galvin presumes to act in the ultimate interests of his comatose client, but he violates both the trust and instructions of his conscious clients, the victim's sister and brother-in-law, played very believably by Roxanne Hart and James Handy.

The closest "The Verdict" comes to a persuasive reflection of underdog sentiment is when Handy, appalled at the lawyer's eagerness to exploit their ongoing misery, becomes furious and equates him with the blundering doctors Galvin hopes to nail: "You guys are all the same--and people like us live with your mistakes the rest of our lives."

Neither Galvin nor the filmmakers can formulate a reply to this grievance.

Once the adversary process is under way, Galvin keeps failing to distinguish himself. His methods of preparing and presenting the victim's case remain abysmally shoddy. To overcompensate, the filmmakers load conventional sympathy on Galvin's empty side of the professional contest. There's a long, sad story behind his downfall, although this, too, tends to boomerang and stigmatize him as a born pushover.

The opposing counsel, Ed Concannon, a prestigious defense attorney played by James Mason, is seen commanding a wealth of financial and legal resources. Mason further disqualifies himself for the movie's narrowly defined loyalties by proving a cagy and even ruthless tactician, a courtroom smoothie and a far more attractive performer than the star.

Galvin is supposed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by coming up with that venerable dodge, the surprise witness, a nurse played by Lindsay Crouse, who agrees to break a long silence and testify to falsification of the patient's records on the night of the accident. Since Concannon is nimble enough to neutralize this shocker as a piece of evidence, Galvin is left throwing himself on the mercy of the jury with a weirdly dithering summation that is nevertheless meant to be received as an eloquent persuader: "I know you have thought, how can I be pure? So much of the time we're just lost . . . There's no justice . . . We become tired of hearing people lie . . . And after a time we become dead, and think of ourselves as victims. We become weak, we doubt ourselves, we doubt our institutions, we doubt our law . . . But today we are the law." Was it my imagination or did someone begin singing "Ol' Man River" out in the corridor while this dismal oration (evidently the handiwork of David Mamet) babbled along?

Paul Newman seems to be betraying a somewhat unfocused, possibly cosmic despondency during this bust of a big speech. One thing conspicuously wrong with his performance is that it remains maddeningly humorless.

Ultimately, the filmmakers rest Galvin's case on the tenderheartedness of juries, not exactly the most reassuring form of trust one might be prepared to settle for. It also seems a trifle daft coming from Lumet, who began his film directing career with "12 Angry Men," which implied that the jury system was an extremely fallible safeguard, trustworthy only insofar as each jury could be stocked with a moral majority of one open-minded and resolute liberal, preferably embodied by Henry Fonda.

A good deal of the composition is so deliberately static that you're compelled to conclude Lumet wanted to make a film that looked stagey, as if the gravity of the occasion somehow obliged us to see everything from a fixed perspective in the orchestra. The portentousness is often a disservice to the actors, embedded in dead air with roles too feebly written to get the ventilation going. This is especially true of poor Charlotte Rampling, stuck with a token Mystery Woman assignment that makes her seem like an inept impersonator of Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not."

Unless Paul Newman has given a farewell performance in "The Verdict," the idea of his finally winning his Oscar on this sad-sack showing is sad to contemplate. He's done a lot of things right on the screen over the past 30 years and will surely have the chance to enhance that rightness. Frank Galvin is one of his wrong numbers, and I'm sure the bright young lawyer Newman played so dynamically years ago in "The Young Philadelphians" wouldn't tolerate Galvin's groping for an instant.