Friday, March 21

To Kill a Mockingbird: Favorite Movie #2

1962 Drama
From Universal Pictures
Directed by Robert Mulligan

Gregory Peck
Mary Badham
Phillip Alford
Brock Peters
Robert Duvall
Rosemary Murphy
Frank Overton
John Megna
James Anderson
Collin Wilcox
Estelle Evans
Paul Fix
William Windom
Ruth White
Alice Ghostley

Most of my friends and family know what my number one favorite movie is so the end of this 50 Favorite Films journey may be a bit anti-climactic for them.  One of them mentioned that he is looking to see instead what number two is.  Well, here it is... and if I do say so myself, it is one of the finest movies ever made, nearly flawless... To Kill a Mockingbird.

Despite being based on Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about her childhood in Alabama with her beloved attorney father, studios weren't quick to jump on it as a film.  They regarded it as a risk because it had virtually no action and lacked a romantic angle.  Luckily, producer Alan Pakula saw beyond that.  So did Gregory Peck, who early on had read the novel and thought he could do justice to Atticus Finch.  With Peck's enthusiasm, the project could move ahead. 

A true masterpiece, the film raises questions of racism, poverty, morality, parenting and lost innocence and does so with enormous grace and integrity.  One of the great things that carries it along on a wave of undeniable acclaim is that the adult themes are told from the viewpoint of a child. 

Atticus Finch is a smalltown, white, southern, liberal attorney who defends a black man on a trumped-up rape charge brought by a white-trash teenage girl.  She is backed by her loathsome father who is likely to be the true culprit.  This plot point is positioned alongside the widowed lawyer's two children, Scout, 6, and her slightly older brother, Jem.  How they live their lives, which are largely unsupervised, while running around their neighborhood gathering memories, is at the heart of the tender story.

Atticus & defendant Tom Robinson (Brock Peters)

Scene by scene this movie unfolds like an idyll.  There is a great humanity at play here, thanks to a distinguished, heroic character like Atticus Finch.  He is a model for decency, goodness, wisdom,  refinement.  Whether he is delivering the courtroom's powerful summation or sitting on the front porch swing listening through a window to his children spinning their tales, Atticus has an air of gravitas that commands respect from all but the movie's villain.  I have never forgotten how Peck silently observed others when they spoke, how he turned his head, how his concerns displayed on his face.  I have always regarded this alone as a magnificent piece of acting.

I don't think narration always helps a film but here it is done with great care and insight.  The voice belongs to esteemed Broadway actress Kim Stanley as the grownup Scout reciting passages that are sheer poetry.

Several scenes take place on the front porch, as would certainly have been the custom in those times.  It was a reminder of my own childhood as I watched the kids sneaking up on a neighbor's scary house.  There was the riveting scene of Atticus sitting alone outside the jail, standing guard over his client when a vigilante party approaches, only to be dissuaded by the appearance of the children.  I felt as terrorized as Jem did when the car he is sitting in is encircled by the villain, Bob Ewell. 

Portraying blacks in a favorable light and taking on the issue of prejudice are part of what makes this film as heartfelt as it is.  And the attention paid to childhood issues are distinguished in a way that we rarely see in an adult drama.  It was a simpler time when children had to learn to keep themselves occupied through using their imaginations.  Had there been computers, the Finches would have been too poor to own one.  Jem and Scout were sometimes up to mischief, like most children, but they had to rely on neighbors and tree houses and big knot holes in trees for most of their adventures.  Atticus, who allowed his children to call him by his first name, permitted the children much freedom.  Along with a treasured black housekeeper to oversee things, Atticus felt a bond of trust with his kids and they with him.  

Robert Duvall in his first movie role

As memorable as the Finch family is, equally so is Arthur "Boo" Radley, played to perfection by Robert Duvall.  Boo is a recluse neighbor who has long privately cared for the Finch kids and who before the end of the film will... well, here is how the narrator Scout says it:  Boo was our neighbor.  He gave us stuffed dolls, a broken watch and chain, a knife... and our lives.

Yesterday while watching the film, I replayed the final scenes three times, setting off some serious tears.  Somehow the children-in- peril storyline always gets my attention and stirs emotions in me.    There is the scene of Boo hiding behind the door and ending with the final shot outside Jem's bedroom with Scout's narration telling us Atticus would be by his injured son's bedside into the morning hours.  Damn, does that choke me up.

The acting in To Kill a Mockingbird is brilliant.  If there were awards for ensemble acting in those days, this film was a shoo-in.  Few actors have ever inhabited a role as comfortably as Gregory Peck did with Atticus Finch.  There is little doubt the two, the actor and the character, were similar types but Peck pulled out every bit of business he knew how to do, much of it keenly understated.  Harper Lee, who was often on the set, said he portrayed her father so well that she thought he was her father.  It was a great compliment.  Peck would not surprisingly say Atticus Finch was his favorite role in his long and glorious career.

Mary Badham & Phillip Alford

I've said it before and I say it again... arguably the best child acting I have ever seen came in the performances of Mary Badham and Phillip Alford.  Of course, as is usually the case in juvenile parts, these are not incidental roles but starring ones.  To think that these two won auditions for the parts, never having acted in a film before, is even more astonishing.  It is a bit disheartening to think their brilliance didn't lead to big careers. 

To Kill a Mockingbird would be Oscar-nominated for best picture, director, supporting actress (Badham), cinematography and for Elmer Bernstein's evocative score.  It would win Oscars for best art and set direction (the entire film, its sets, the town, the neighborhood, the courtroom was all done on the Universal back lot), for Horton Foote's thoughtful adapted screenplay and of course for Peck's vivid portrayal of Atticus Finch.

For the record, the esteemed American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch the number one film hero of the 20th century.  It also voted the film #1 in courtroom scenes.  And it named the film itself #25 of all-time films.  Mighty impressive.

For your trivia file:  six actors made their film debuts in To Kill a Mockingbird... all of the children, Alford, Badham and Megna, along with Duvall, Ghostley and Windom.

My partner and I don't have a lot of the same films on our favorites lists, maybe eight or so.  But what we do agree on are our number one and number two picks.  We like that.  I should think To Kill a Mockingbird would be one of the films that most people would agree with being on a favorites list and may, in fact, have it on their own.

Review of The Grand Budapest Hotel


1 comment:

  1. I luuuuuved To Kill a Mockingbird! Thanks for a good write-up.