To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
, directed by Robert Mulligan.
A much loved and honored film, great looking and tremendously well acted, a warm and poignant bit of American history.
I can't say enough about Gregory Peck, one of my favorite actors and near the peak of his powers in the early 60s: his fatherly strength and wisdom, his courageous moral sense. Everyone says the actor and his character were not far apart in this case.
We have three intertwined story threads:
(1) The children's point of view. Kids don't know when they're poor, and these kids don't know any life other than the Great Depression. Whatever adults think of the sad state of the world, to children it's always fresh and new.
(2) Their persistent fascination with the town boogeyman, Boo Radley, who lives just two doors down. Again, to each new generation the world is a mystery, full of puzzles to solve. The adults know all about Arthur and his troubles, but the kids have to figure it out for themselves.
(3) The justice and racism Message, gradually revealed in little scenes the children don't understand. This aspect takes over in the courtroom drama of the second half. The trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman reflects that era's concern with civil rights.
The presentation of a message is a delicate matter in film: too heavy and we feel we are being hectored and the film becomes just a lecture tool. The message is strong here, but I think the film contains and supports it quite well. You can see the machinery, though:
- Tom Robinson is unambiguously innocent, which everyone knows, prosecutor and jury included.
- All the villains are white. The black characters are quietly noble and dignified, although only a few have many lines: Calpurnia, Tom, and the Reverend.
- The decent whites (Atticus, Maudie, the Judge and Sheriff) all seem to be townspeople, while the lynch mob look like poor farmers: urban sophistication vs rural ignorance.
- The prosecutor just seems to be doing his job until Tom admits he pitied poor Mayella. That's what kills him. The prosecutor is so outraged he can't help but play it up for the jury.
I don't suppose an indictment of women for making false rape accusations was part of the intended Message.
James Anderson, who plays chief villain Bob Ewell, was reputedly a dangerous character off screen. He got the part because he said, with conviction: "I know this man." The producer made him promise to stop drinking, be on time, and not make trouble on the set, and he cooperated. His line "What kind of man are you? You've got children of your own" actually encapsulates quite a bit of the movie.
First film roles for William Windom and Robert Duvall. Peck's nine-minute courtroom summation was done in one take.
Lovely Elmer Bernstein score. Kim Stanley narrates. Filmed entirely at the studio.
Available on Blu-ray with a rather fine image. The commentary track is a discussion between the producer and director as they watch the film. Some silences and they whisper together about points they don't want the audience to hear.
Classicflix has the Blu-ray; Netflix doesn't.