Strong script is backbone of Paul Newman film; Playwright David Mamet's impressive jump to the screen

As of now, David Mamet is best known as a playwright, with such successes as ''American Buffalo'' and ''A Life in the Theatre'' to his credit. His one foray into Hollywood - the remake of ''The Postman Always Rings Twice'' - was forgettable.

But look for big changes in December, when ''The Verdict'' arrives. Written by Mamet, directed by Sidney Lumet, performed by Paul Newman and a good supporting cast, it's one of the strongest American movies of the year. It may well establish its author as one of Hollywood's hottest screenwriters.

In some ways, ''The Verdict'' is not a pretty picture. Some of its language is rough, and it contains a few unpleasant medical details. But the substance of the film is positive and constructive. It's the story of a man's regeneration, his renewal of faith in himself and his society. Although parts of the journey are harrowing, the outcome is bright.

Newman plays the main character, a lawyer on the skids. Hoping to make a few fast dollars, he takes on a negligence case against a hospital. A quick settlement should be easy, since nobody - not even the plaintiff - wants the case to go to trial. But a quick settlement would cover up the wrongdoing. So our hero puts himself on the line, determined to fight against all odds for a right resolution.

Everyone involved in ''The Verdict'' earns high marks. Newman gives what may be the performance of his career. Except for a few overdone moments near the beginning and end, Lumet has directed the drama with taste and restraint, often letting the star carry whole scenes in long, fluid shots of a lasting intensity rarely found in today's quick-cutting movies. Solid backing comes from such capable actors as James Mason, Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling, and - appropriately - Lindsay Crouse, who in real life is Mamet's wife and mother of their brand-new baby.

But much of the credit goes to screenwriter Mamet, whose script is the backbone of the picture. At first glance, he wouldn't seem an ideal candidate for the switch from the stage to screen. His plays, including such unconventional works as ''The Water Engine'' and ''The Duck Variations,'' tend to live in their language rather than their images. Still, his screenplay for ''The Verdict'' shows a strong grasp of movie construction on both the verbal and visual levels.

Not that it came easily. ''Plot is my weak point,'' Mamet admitted over lunch here the other day. ''It's a skill I've had to work at developing. In this case, I had much of the plot handed to me from the original novel I adapted. . . . But there were a lot of changes, and I was finally able to bring out the elements that interested me - mainly the renewal of faith that the main character undergoes. That's what the movie is really about, in my view.''

Mamet has found many differences between screenwriting and playwriting.

''When I want to write a play,'' he says, ''I look deep into my soul, and usually decide I'd be better off shooting pool. So I do that for a while, and things eventually sort themselves out, and then I begin to put things on paper.''

By contrast, ''when you write a movie you're an employee, and you have to deliver. So I discipline myself more, and spend regular hours at the typewriter.'' There's less freedom in writing a movie script, and less control over the final production. But the result can reach an audience more vast than most plays ever find.

''The Verdict'' was a natural project for Mamet. For one thing, he's a self-described ''movie freak'' who will ''sit through anything you put on a screen.'' For another, he grew up surrounded by lawyers, including his father, stepfather, and two siblings. He began his own career as an actor - ''not a very good one'' - and soon founded his own theater company in Chicago. ''I started writing because there was so little for 19- and 20-year-olds to perform,'' he recalls. The writing gathered momentum, and soon many of his plays were successfully produced on Broadway and elsewhere.

His next play to arrive in New York is a drama called ''Edmond,'' opening later this month at the Provincetown Playhouse, where I dropped in on a recent rehearsal. Mamet describes it as a dark work on ''conservative, family-related themes.'' But even though it deals with a man driven berserk by his middle-class life - a metaphor for ''the fate of the white race'' - it has an upbeat twist at the end. Despite his great respect for tragedy and melodrama as dramatic forms, Mamet doesn't revel in onstage sadness, and generally redeems even his grimmest moments with notes of hope. He is also capable of uproarious comedy, as in his plotless ''Duck Variations.''

Mamet sees his difficulty with ''plot'' as a symptom of our age. ''Hardly anyone writes a good plot nowadays,'' he says. ''That's because basically, plot is a matter of what happens next. And in an anxious time like today, people don't want to know what will happen next! They're afraid of the economy, the politics, the bombs. And every fear hides a wish - a wish that the worst would happen, putting a stop to our anxiety and our responsibility. That's the basic point of 'Edmond,' and it's something I feel is inescapably true.''

Like his own dramaturgy, though, Mamet quickly follows this assessment with an optimistic turn. ''The theater is definitely a source of hope,'' he says with enthusiasm. ''Going to the theater is always an affirmative, hopeful experience for people. It has to be!'' And it will continue to be as long as David Mamet continues his explorations of dramatic form and communication. When TV comedy was king

My Favorite Year has some of the sharpest jokes and brightest gags of the season. It also has lots of cheap humor - double entendres, dirty words, low slapstick, trite jabs at ethnic stereotypes.

It's a mixed bag. Yet it has captured the hearts of many viewers and reviewers, and will probably be around for a long time.

The action revolves around a young comedy writer for a 1950s TV show. This gives us two promising premises: nostalgia for a supposedly carefree decade, and a bunch of wisecracking scriptwriters like the ones on the old ''Dick Van Dyke Show.''

Into their midst comes a movie star named Swann, known for his derring-do in Hollywood swashbucklers. He's slated to be next week's guest on the show, and the staff is excited - until he shows up and reveals himself to be a drunk as well as a has-been. The young writer is drafted to be his keeper, making sure he shows up safe and sober for appointments and rehearsals. It's not an easy job.

Peter O'Toole's performance as Swann is lanky and energetic, tempering its built-in vulgarity with touches of warmth and dignity. Mark Linn-Baker is pert as the young writer - the sort of role that used to be called the ''juvenile'' of a movie - and Joseph Bologna brings a low-key hilarity to the star of the TV program. Add a few subplots, including a feud with a gangster and an excruciating dinner party in Brooklyn, and you have a lively though uneven package. ''My Favorite Year'' was directed by actor Richard Benjamin, showing promise in his filmmaking debut. Proust memoirs on screen

Adventurous theaters like the Film Forum in New York serve the valuable function of introducing new works that are too risky - commercially speaking - for less enterprising exhibitors. Sometimes one of these movies finds an audience and goes on to the regular theatrical circuit.

Such is the case with Celeste, the first feature directed by Percy Adlon. Based on a memoire by Celeste Albaret, the housekeeper of Marcel Proust, it gives a meticulous yet deeply felt account of Proust's last years, as he lounged in his famous cork-lined bedroom and pored over the labyrinthine pages of his masterpiece, ''Remembrance of Things Past.''

In ways, ''Celeste'' is a thoroughly Proustian film. It has the French genius's attention to detail, his earnestness, his sense of humor and weakness for dandyism. In other ways, though, Adlon's cinematic style complements rather than mirrors the artistic personality of his subject - remaining crisp and concise where Proust would surely have been ruminative and expansive.

As a realistic depiction of Proust's later life, ''Celeste'' is convincing, though moviegoers should be aware that it contains glimpses of health problems as well as literary triumphs. As a bonus, it reveals the dedicated life of Celeste herself, pouring all her resources into the care and protection of her beloved charge, whose work apparently baffled her as much as his personality charmed her.

In his study ''Proust,'' author Samuel Beckett suggests that Proust saw friendship as merely ''a social expedient, like upholstery. . . .'' In this film , however, the vision of Celeste's devoted friendship gives a different idea; it exalts the notion of friendship without paying a moment's tribute to selfishness or sentimentality. In fact, it's clear by the end that love and friendship are similar qualities. If love is ''time and space made perceptible to the heart,'' as Proust wrote, this is a loving film he would have much approved.

''Celeste'' opens its regular commercial run today (Oct. 21) in New York. Replacing it at the Film Forum is another worthwhile item: a sweeping science-fiction epic called ''The Stalker,'' directed by Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.

''The Stalker'' takes place in the future. From the look of things, civilization hasn't fared too well, though it's still struggling to hang on. In the middle of an ordinary rural area, a mysterious ''zone'' has suddenly appeared - a place that annihilates most who visit there, but hides at its center a room where wishes come true. The story centers on a ''stalker'' (a professional prowler of the ''zone'') who dares to explore the secrets of this unearthly place.

Those familiar with Tarkovsky's towering ''Solaris'' (or Stanislaw Lem's original ''Solaris'' novel) will recognize the blend of technology and psychology that courses through ''The Stalker,'' in which the heart of the ''zone'' symbolizes the hidden dreams and yearning nightmares that remain a part of our human baggage even in a scientifically ''advanced'' age. With the same creeping pace and extravagant visual style that marked ''Solaris,'' the filmmaker takes us on a guided tour of the psyches as well as the surroundings of his characters, and can't seem to decide which landscape - the inner or the outer - is more forbidding and unfathomable.

The dialogue of ''The Stalker'' becomes pretentious at times, especially when its characters bog down in long discussions of self-consciously weighty issues. Still, no other movie has quite the same impact on the eyes and ears. It's a ponderous work, but a memorable one.

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