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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.
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:
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.