Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Robert Mulligan's socially conscious drama charmed fans of the Harper Lee book, while almost
singlehandedly redefining liberal-minded moviemaking. To Kill a Mockingbird actually
plays better now than it did in 1962; although it sticks to the formula of
appreciating the problems of minorities from a white perspective, it has a sensitivity uncommon
even today. Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch may be a paragon of virtue but he's no superman, and the
movie never stoops to easy emotional effects.
The film introduced a great pair of kids-turned actors and also marks the film debut of Robert
Duvall. His character Boo Radley became famous; Duvall's full success as a movie actor wouldn't come
for another decade.
Jean Louise Finch, otherwise known as Scout (Mary Badham) remembers several
events between the time she was six and eight. She and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford)
spend the summer with a neighbor kid Dill Harris (John Megna) wondering about adult activities
in their tiny Alabama town and obsessing over the unseen boogeyman who lives just two doors
down. Their father Atticus (Gregory Peck), an attorney, takes a controversial case defending
Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) against a rape accusation by the daughter of the racist alcoholic
Bob Ewell (James Anderson). Tomboy Scout has trouble staying out of fights in school, learning
to wear a dress and understanding the social forces that divide the town. Both she and Jem
stand firmly behind their father and his principles.
Coming from a Pulitzer Prize-winning book was no hindrance, but Horton Foote's screenplay for
To Kill a Mockingbird is a near-perfect blueprint for a great picture. Backed by Gregory
Peck's star clout, director Robert Mulligan is able to create a movie with a space, tempo and
temperament of its own. The excellent sets and art direction -- Universal City is transformed
beautifully into a convincing Southern town -- along with Elmer Bernstein's equally sensitive music
score help establish the mood. Even Stephen Frankfurt's impressive title sequence lets us know
the picture is different and important.
A big part of director Mulligan's reputation was founded on his amazingly good work with
young actors in this film, and
large parts of the picture are pitched from the point of view of a small child. The kids are
allowed to behave naturally, and yet he coaxes interesting and meaningful scenes from them time
and again. Mary Badham expresses her adolescent crush on her father during reading at bedtime,
when she asks him about the family treasures he's saved for her. Phillip Alford adores his dad
and can already mirror Atticus' special brand of integrity. Few directors have this talent
for behavorial details - Robert Aldrich makes interesting movies, but his use of child actor John
Megna shows none of the sensitivity seen here.
We're concerned about Mulligan's characters even when nothing extraordinary is happening. A
dinner scene is all about Scout's lack of tact with a farmer's boy, their guest. All Jem sees is
the fact that he isn't allowed to have a gun yet, while the guest kid is. There are at least three
major themes happening between the kids, while Atticus just sits there watching.
Foote's screenplay makes a number of very mature moves. Atticus is forced to shoot a mad dog in one
scene. In another movie that would prime us to expect him to later burst forward with decisive action
to solve some pressing problem. That never happens. In fact, Atticus' well-meaning defense of Tom
Robinson (the late Brock Peters) overlooks an obvious inconsistency in the lying testimony of the
accusers. Bob Ewell states that he got a perfect look at Robinson as he left the scene of the
crime, but his daughter Mayella Violet (Collin Wilcox), the supposed victim, claims that his first
words to her were "Who did this?"
Many 60s movies that 'took on' the civil rights issue now seem too preachy,
or suffer from Stanley Kramer-itis, the illness that makes self-anointed do-gooders unduly proud
of the rightness of their goals. Atticus Finch is personally committed to his beliefs, but he's
not asking the world to see things his way anywhere except the courtroom. The movie doesn't pretend
that his appeal to the decency of his peers will make a big difference on their deep-set prejudices.
The black townfolk banished to segregated seats in the courtroom rise to show their respect for
Finch, but no groundswell of emotion overturns the verdict. The script doesn't go for cheap effects
or easily-bought epiphanies.
All that Atticus and To Kill a Mockingbird really preach is a variation on the golden rule --
we'd all do better if we took the time appreciated the differing perspectives of other people. This
is where the Boo Radley character comes in. He starts off as a potential Frankenstein's Monster,
and is finally revealed to simply be mentally and emotionally handicapped. Boo saves the day for
the Finch family and earns their love and respect. In keeping with the maturity of the story, Boo
doesn't change into a fully developed personality, and he could still be potentially dangerous in
the wrong circumstances. 1
To Kill a Mockingbird is fairly unique as a 'children's favorite' in that, unlike
Pollyanna, it doesn't
explain the world as a
wonderful place where all known problems can be solved with a smile and good intentions. You could
call it Pollyanna Noir: There's a depression on. Good men are humbled while racial hatred is
strong and active. A lonely handicapped man is locked up like an animal because he's deemed unfit
to be seen in public. Atticus' kids have to figure out for themselves how to live in what is
actually a twisted and flawed world.
Savant's always loved the idea of Scout walking home in the dark while wearing a costume as a ham
ready for cooking; she looks like one of those cartoon visions of what the wolf sees when he looks
at Little Red Riding Hood.
Frank Overton makes an interestingly weak sheriff, one who can't shoot a mad dog and can't really
give a convincing (to us) explanation about what happened to the prisoner he was transporting. He
played a similar type memorably in Elia Kazan's Wild River. Rosemary Murphy is the neighbor
lady we expect to become a romantic replacement for Atticus' dead wife. Ruth White and Alice Ghostley
have strong bits as local ladies, although White originally had a much larger role that was cut
down. Then-unfamiliar William Windom is a prosecuting attorney.
Only James Anderson is allowed to be a thoroughly unredeemable villain. The rest of the bit casting
is so effective, we wrongly assume that the movie was shot on location.
Universal's Legacy Series DVD of To Kill a Mockingbird comes with a flawless enhanced
B&W transfer. We can see how the widescreen aspect ratio is meant to work in the carefully composed
main titles. The only grain in the film comes in shots that are enlarged optically. Mulligan could
get terrific performances, but sometimes his camera wasn't quite as close as he wanted it.
Disc one has the feature and a number of extras. Robert Mulligan and Alan Pakula tell the entire
production story in their feature commentary, which is sometimes sparse but is one of those key
source accounts one is glad are laid down on tape. There's a lot of wisdom in what they say: "No
director can tell a kid how to act like a kid." Filling out disc one are Peck's personal appearances
at the Oscars, the AFI and an Academy tribute; a trailer; and a new featurette called Scout
Remembers in which Mary Badham goes over her childhood acting experience.
Disc two has a pair of quality shows. A Conversation with Gregory Peck is a longform docu
by Barbara Kopple that uses a Boston speaking engagement as a springboard to illuminate his life;
its a portrait of uncommon dignity. Charles Kiselyak's making of docu Fearful Symmetry is
a bit on the precious side, but is an excellent docu, with interview input by Horton Foote, Robert
Mulligan, Alan Pakula, Gregory Peck, Phillip Alford, Mary Badham, Elmer Bernstein, Brock Peters,
Collin Wilcox, and Robert Duvall. The 90 minute B&W show makes extensive use of interviews with locals in
the town where Harper Lee grew up, and editor Denise Ann Cochran fleshes it out with hundreds of
still images from the town's past. It was made for an earlier DVD released in 1998.
In the third wing of the folding DVD case is an envelope with ten or so color postcard reproductions
of Mockingbird posters from around the world.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
To Kill a Mockingbird rates:
Sound: Excellent Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), English (DTS 5.1)
Supplements: Commentary with Director Robert Mulligan and Producer Alan Pakula,
Featurette Fearful Symmetry, A Conversation with Gregory Peck,
Academy Award Best Actor Acceptance Speech, American Film Institute Life Achievment Award,
Excerpt from Academy Tribute to Gregory Peck, Scout Remembers, Trailer
Packaging: 2 Discs in heavy folding card and plastic holder
Reviewed: September 1, 2005
1. The idea of a shunned
madman or recluse watching over children or a defenseless woman had probably been used before and
has certainly been used since. My favorite wrinkle on the theme is Raggedy Man.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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