Thursday, October 28, 2010

1962 - To Kill A Mockingbird

I always enjoy seeing classic movies on the big screen. The cinema experience will always trump the home theatre experience, I guess, until the day that the cinema experience is the home theatre experience (i.e. when I own a house big enough for a private screening room). Among others, I've been lucky enough to see 70mm prints of Lawrence of Arabia and Ben-Hur, and I got my sci-fi geek on for the reissues of the first three Star Wars films in the late 1990s. But last weekend was a particularly personal thrill for me as I attended a special 25th anniversary screening of Back to the Future. I had never seen it on the big screen before (I was only nine years old during its initial release) but, through video and DVD, it became one of my all-time favourite films, one which, I'm glad to say, still holds up today, despite its mathematically erroneous pronunciation of 1.21 gigawatts. Seeing it in a room full of like-minded fans created an electrifying atmosphere - there were cheers when George knocked out Biff - and since I had already seen Parts II and III in the cinema, this recent screening finally makes the trilogy complete for me.

Yesterday, I took a look at another classic from 1962's Best Picture race...

To Kill A Mockingbird
Robert Mulligan
Horton Foote
(based on the novel by Harper Lee)
Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Philip Alford, John Megna, Frank Overton, Brock Peters, Collin Wilcox, James Anderson, Robert Duvall
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
3 wins, including Best Actor (Peck) and Best Adapted Screenplay

Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel made its way into most high school English classrooms, including the one I attended at Gymea Technology High School, making it a familiar story to most. For some reason, though, my main memory of the book is of the rabid dog. That and the wacky names of all the characters: Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill. Even the Sheriff's name is Heck.

In a small Southern town during the 1930s, lawyer Atticus Finch (Peck) raises his two children, Scout (Badham) and Jem (Alford). The kids befriend their neighbour's visiting nephew, a young boy named Dill (Megna), and the three make their own fun on the streets, mostly by making up stories about the mysterious Boo Radley (Duvall), their reclusive neighbour that none of them have seen. Meanwhile, Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson (Peters), a young black man accused of assaulting a white girl named Mayella (Wilcox). The girl's father, Mr. Ewell (Anderson) is not particularly happy about Tom receiving any kind of defense and he has a gang of likewise angry townsfolk on his side. Atticus attempts to keep the situation in the town under control as he mounts his case for Tom's innocence.

Atticus Finch may well be the most morally upstanding character in fiction. He is considerate, compassionate and incorruptible. Calm under tense situations, he stands up to bullies with a mild and rational temperament. A loving father, he teaches his children to adhere to the same moral code. And since it is typically a character's flaws that make him a fascinating study, Atticus comes across as entirely uninteresting as a lead character because he appears to be flawless. Don't get me wrong. We still love him and want him to succeed, but the truly interesting elements of To Kill A Mockingbird lie elsewhere.

To be honest, though, Atticus probably isn't the lead character anyway. The novel is written in the first person by Scout (and the film is narrated by the adult version of her, voiced by an uncredited Kim Stanley), so it would seem plausible to call her the lead. The story can certainly be considered her coming of age tale. Indeed, both Finch children learn a great deal over the course of the picture, the first half of which concentrates on their adventures.

Then, there is the grand courtroom scene. Even if Atticus himself is prosaically simple, the battle that he inevitably faces in court (and outside the court, for that matter) is dramatic and affecting. It is no secret that I love legal dramas, particularly those gotcha moments when a lawyer wins a point against his opposition. Atticus certainly has no shortage of those moments. However, the events in the courtroom seemed somehow unbelievable. Granted, I don't have a great knowledge of U.S. criminal law in the 1930s - and perhaps it is due to my familiarity with modern legal dramas both on the big and the small screen - but there were several moments during both lawyers' cross-examinations that I expected to hear the other yell, "Objection!" Some of the claims being presented seemed legally spurious. Nonetheless, the direction and the cast help to retain a tense atmosphere.

Gregory Peck won his only Oscar for this iconic role and despite my misgivings about the character's dramatic appeal, Peck's portrayal is strong and grounded. Both Brock Peters as the accused man and Collin Wilcox as the accusing woman deliver powerful performances making the most of their brief moments on the witness stand. And yes, that's a young Robert Duvall making his film debut as the mute Boo Radley.


  1. What did you think of Mary Badham's performance?

  2. I wasn't a huge fan of the kids' performances, but then I'm pretty picky when it comes to child acting.

  3. Robert Mulligan, like Delbert Mann, Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer to name a few, got his directorial start with live TV in the 1950s. I think his best achievements involved those coming of age films that were steeped in the past: The Summer of '42, The Man in the Moon and especially To Kill a Mockingbird. His technique with directing children involved using as few takes as possible and allowing them to play and relax on the set until the shot. It surely works here, with Philip Alford and Mary Badham, who deliver remarkably natural performances from first time performers. The advice he was given during the shoot was to keep the focus on the children. This is followed to a 'T' during the first half of the movie. When the action shifts to the life lessons they learn about good and evil in the second half that focus is shifted as the children become onlookers, and in some scenes the film doesn't work as well. Perhaps it was that there were little shades of grey in the characterizations. Most of the adults were either very good or very bad.

    The commentary track of the movie contains observations from both Mulligan and the producer Alan J. Pakula. They both mention several times that the leisurely pace and longish takes, sometimes with little dialogue may not sit well with modern audiences. I don't know, but I really enjoyed the movie as presented, from the soundtrack to the black and white photography to the mise-en-scene. It is a beautiful accomplishment.