To Kill a Mockingbird
Director: Robert Mulligan
Starring: Gregory Peck, Brock Peters, Mary Badham, Philip Alford
I’ll start this one with a bit of a shocker: I’ve never read the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Somehow, in my high school years, I managed to miss that one particular piece of definitive American fiction. Perhaps that helps me, though, in examining the film; I’m untainted by what is usually perceived as a negative experience of “having to read” something for school.
Atticus Finch (Peck) is a small town country lawyer in 1930s Alabama. His two young children, Jem (Alford) and Scout (Badham) watch their father with reverence and awe as they go about their typical childhood shenanigans. Things get serious, though, when Atticus is brought on to defend Tom Robinson (Peters), a black man, against an unfounded rape charge of a white woman, bringing in issues of race, class, and justice.
Although I haven’t read the book, I can say that the film of To Kill a Mockingbird seems a very potent adaptation. It works well onscreen, with clearly drawn characters and a distinct narrative structure to the story, along with some fairly heavy-hitting social issues that manage to sneak in after the movie has lulled you into a sense of complacency. As is the case with most films that focus on childhood recollections, there are many small episodes and no real overarching narrative thread to the film; however, the characters, especially Atticus, are strong enough to tie everything together in a satisfactory manner.
Atticus Finch, as portrayed by Peck, is easily the bedrock of the film. It’s easy to see why the AFI named Finch the number one Movie Hero of all time. Finch’s heroism is made all the more powerful by the fact that it’s less blatant and more troubled than most typical do-gooders. Peck, as Finch, is quiet but self-assured, calm but passionate, and he even he can be pushed too far as seen in an utterly wrenching scene late in the film. My favorite aspect of his performance is how understated it is; there’s a lot of subtlety in Atticus. I haven’t exactly exhausted all of Gregory Peck’s filmography, but after revisiting him in this film, I’d be hard-pressed to name a better performance of his. Unlike many other actors of his generation, (like Cary Grant) I don’t see this role as Peck simply playing some aspect of Peck. No, this is a fully realized performance; this is not Gregory Peck, this is Atticus Finch.
Movies that focus on child actors tend to live or die by the performances of the children. Scout and Jem are solid performances; not the best child actors I’ve ever seen, but solid. Alford as Jem is fairly typical child actor performance, solid but not amazing, but Badham as Scout was very good. In terms of speaking the lines, she was essentially like any other child actor (re: acceptable), but it was her physicality that set her apart. Badham’s Scout is all tetchy movements, elbows and knees, squints and sly smiles that she can’t seem to help. The scene where Scout is reading in bed with Atticus is a perfect example; Badham doesn’t have extensive lines, but it’s the way she handles the book, the way she stretches, the way she touches the watch with eager, awkward fingers that just feels perfect. Intentional or not, these are the marks of reality and helped make her performance in particular work so well for me.
To Kill a Mockingbird has been described as a gothic film in terms of its approach to the mysterious beliefs that children concoct for themselves. Removing the courthouse drama episode from the film (which is discussed below), there is definitely a dark fairy tale tone to the story that puts To Kill a Mockingbird in the same family as Night of the Hunter. The difference of the father figure sets these two films apart – one pure evil, one pure goodness – but the tones are similar. The fright of Boo Radley’s house, the wonder at discovering the trinkets in the tree, the invented stories, and the terror of the final battle in the woods; they all have an air of surrealism to them, a dark magic that nicely coincides with traditional (re: not Disney) fairy tales, one often helped along by terrific camerawork.
To Kill a Mockingbird seems to me to represent a fundamental shift in American filmmaking. Although the late sixties are typically seen as the focal point for the change from “Classic Hollywood” to “Modern Hollywood,” due to, in no small part, the eventual influence of the French New Wave, the pumps had to be primed in order to accept that change. To Kill a Mockingbird is a film that got Hollywood ready to change. The episodes that deal with the gothic children’s tales of the original story are presented in a typical “Classic Hollywood” manner, but it is the sneakiness of the story suddenly warping into a wretched one of racism, bigotry, and intolerance, one that has more than one powerful punch to the stomach in store for you, that provides glimpses into the “Modern Hollywood” that would come a few years down the road. The courthouse drama episode, easily the most memorable one of the film, stands head and shoulders above the rest of the story and is surprisingly fresh and gripping. It doesn’t feel outdated in the least. It is still potent and, unfortunately, still relevant. There are certain expectations from a courthouse drama, and To Kill a Mockingbird manages to throw most of them on their head, a major reason why this film works as well as it does and why it sets the path for the new means of filmmaking that followed. This aspect of the story is incredibly courageous in what it dared to do and show in 1960s America, a culture in the midst of a civil rights flashpoint.
Distinctly episodic in nature, To Kill a Mockingbird is defined by its characters and its performances, and it is strong in both. Although not a particular favorite of mine, Peck as Finch is fantastic and in my recent rewatch, I found myself rather unexpectedly in tears several times. This is a film that rightly deserves to be remembered and passed on.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10