Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962. Directed by Robert Mulligan, and starring Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall.

When I have admitted that I had never seen To Kill a Mockingbird until two weeks ago, many people, especially my younger friends, have expressed astonishment.  Most have indicated to me that they saw it in high school when they read the book for their English classes.  So then I am forced to explain that I’m so old that we didn’t HAVE easy access to movies when I was in school.  I finished high school in 1972, at least 10 years before the advent of the VCR, VHS and Beta tapes, etc.  Back when I was in school, we used film reels threaded through clunky projectors manned by the geeky AV kids in order to see a movie in class.  As I recall, we hardly ever saw a movie in class!  Occasionally we would be herded into the school auditorium to see a film, but these were usually educational films about the dangers of drugs or drunk driving — not theatrical release-type films.  And the chances of catching it on TV were slim, too, because we only had five channels in those days: ABC (8), NBC (5), CBS (4), the local channel 11, and the PBS channel 13.  Most programming ended at midnight, and the older movies that were frequently shown as reruns were mostly of the B-grade variety — space and horror films, teen exploitation and beach romances, or gritty cop dramas.  I do remember reading the book, but I have to confess that, until watching the film, I didn’t remember very much about the story.

So I embarked upon my Top 25 project (see my previous post for an explanation of this endeavor) by watching a movie I had never seen before, To Kill a Mockingbird.  I don’t believe I carried many preconceptions into this venture, other than the belief that this movie would be moving and well-made.  (Obviously, since it’s listed in the Top 25!)  What I didn’t expect was the amount of gentle humor in the film, for the most part due to the delightful children portraying Scout, Jem, and Dill.  In an era when most children portrayed in movies were overly cute and precocious, it must have been refreshing to watch such unaffected, naturally authentic performances.  I especially loved Scout’s ham costume!  Jem’s reactions to his little sister – annoyance alternating with protectiveness – were touchingly sweet and felt real to me.  The one scene that seemed a bit contrived to me was the night at the courthouse, when Scout’s innocent questions help to diffuse the tension between her father Atticus and the riled-up menfolk of the town who seem determined to lynch Tom Robinson before his trial.  I just don’t think a 6-year-old girl would continue to speak up when her questions were so thoroughly rebuffed.  I know that scene serves a definite purpose, but it just seemed… I don’t know.  Too easy?  Perhaps Scout’s performance seemed coached?  I’m not sure, but it just didn’t ring as true as the rest of the action involving the children.

I think the most important aspect of this film was Gregory Peck’s quiet dignity as Atticus Finch and the respect he showed for every character in the story.  His interactions with Tom Robinson and his family were beautifully under-played: he was neither patronizing nor overly familiar.  His interactions with his housekeeper, Calpurnia, were similarly restrained, yet respectful.  The examples he set for the children in his interactions with Scout’s underfed classmate, Walter Cunningham Jr., and Walter’s father who was forced to pay off his debt to Finch with produce, and even with the infamous Boo Radley, were more than simple life lessons from father to child – they also served as models of dignity, class, and fairness to the American movie-going public.  Even when the reprehensible Bob Ewell spits in his face, Peck’s Atticus Finch never stoops to seek revenge.  His lack of reaction is what truly condemns Ewell in the eyes of the Finch children, the Robinson family, and in the eyes of the film’s viewers.

One thing that I really appreciated about this film was its slow and measured pace, but this might be a hindrance to younger audiences today who are more accustomed to the rapid-fire editing of the blockbuster style.  Mulligan’s directing lets the story breathe, and creates a very credible atmosphere of small-town life in the Great Depression South.  The deliberate pacing of the courtroom scenes established palpable tension while remaining true to the time period and spirit of the book. I also appreciated some of the interesting camera angles utilized in the courtroom scene.  The societal and cultural divisions between the races were eloquently demonstrated in shots that incorporated the views of spectators on the floor of the courtroom and in the balcony.

I had noticed Robert Duvall’s name in the credits when the film started, so I kept watching to see when he would pop up.  I expected that maybe he would be one of the townfolk, but I never anticipated his role as Boo Radley!  After the way the children talked about Boo, as well as what Dill’s aunt had to say on the subject, I expected Boo to be more visibly frightening – perhaps deformed in some way.  (Maybe I was expecting someone like “Sloth” in the Goonies movie?)  But Duvall, consummate actor that he is, was able to create a frightening, yet sympathetic, character just by facial expression and eye movement (with the help of some low-angle, atmospheric lighting).  How young he looked there!  Boo Radley, by the way, was his first major role in a motion picture.

Although the story is set in the 1930’s, this film was released in 1962.  This was a time of increasing racial tension throughout the country — Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in 1963 — and this movie must have had a positive influence on many who saw it during that time.  I believe it is for this reason, as well as for Peck’s masterful performance, that this movie was listed in the Top 25.

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