Monday, April 13, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird is iconic as both a literary and a cinematic work, to such an extent that it's hard to say which version enjoys greater acclaim today. The 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee's enduring story remains widely popular with viewers more than fifty years after its release, and for its star, Gregory Peck, the role of Atticus Finch proved a defining moment. Although Horton Foote's screenplay makes many changes to the original material, the essence of the story remains, and Peck's Oscar-winning performance is enhanced by the skillful direction of Robert Mulligan and the support of a very convincing cast, which includes Brock Peters and a very young Robert Duvall.

The story follows young Scout Finch (Mary Badham) and her brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), through the more eventful moments of their childhoods in the small Alabama town of Maycomb. Scout, Jem, and their friend, Dill (John Megna), spend their free time wondering about their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), but their lives are changed when their father, Atticus (Gregory Peck), is assigned to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. Their friends and neighbors reveal the ugliness of racial prejudice as Atticus is criticized for doing his best to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) in court, even though his guilt is far from certain.

Although Scout's first person narration makes her the obvious protagonist of Harper Lee's novel, the film shifts the focus to Atticus, and in some scenes Scout is not even present. The change puts the heavier acting burden on Peck but also lets him develop the character more fully. More than anything else, the film version of the story becomes a paean to the upright patriarch and champion of decency, which might help to explain why a movie about racism, rape, an egregious miscarriage of justice, an attempted lynching, and attempted murder leaves most viewers feeling uplifted instead of depressed. Atticus does not even enjoy the success of Henry Fonda's juror in 12 Angry Men (1957), but he inspires both his children and the audience to feel that the good fight is worthwhile, even when one is bound to lose it. Peck embodies these qualities perfectly, and it's fascinating to compare his idealized Atticus with the more complicated Southern lawyer family man he plays in the same year's Cape Fear. The movie also creates more conflict between Atticus and Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the man who accuses Tom Robinson of raping his daughter, partly to play up the contrast between these two fathers. Every ounce of integrity in Atticus has its equal opposite measure in Ewell's despicable, hateful character, and James Anderson, who worked mostly in television and Westerns, gives the single most memorable performance of his career.

Despite playing second fiddle to Peck, the children in the film are excellent representations of the novel's trio of youngsters, with Mary Badham especially winning as the tomboyish Scout. Her performance earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, a category that highlights Scout's diminished importance in the film. Both Badham and Phillip Alford were Alabama natives making their first screen appearances; their Southern accents are natural, not coached, which helps the picture tremendously, and they behave like real, rough and tumble children rather than Hollywood imitations. John Megna, a New Yorker, was the professional of the group, but he catches the hyperbolic, eager nature of Dill, who makes up wild tales to impress his friends and cover for his lack of a father. The children's scenes with African-American characters advance the story's underlying message about racial equality and the changing attitudes of a new generation. We see them at home with Calpurnia (Estelle Evans), the only maternal figure Scout has ever known, and at the trial with the kindly Reverend Sykes (Bill Walker), with whom they sit in the balcony designated for the court's black spectators. Jem's brief scene with Tom Robinson's son, in which they wave tentatively at one another, eloquently expresses the way in which white and black children in the South were so close, and yet so far, from each other at every moment of their lives.

To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars and earned eight additional nominations, a very good performance in a year that included Lawrence of Arabia and The Miracle Worker as significant competitors. Robert Mulligan also directed Gregory Peck in The Stalking Moon (1968). For more of Peck, see Gentleman's Agreement (1947), Roman Holiday (1953), and Cape Fear (1962). Although neither Brock Peters nor Robert Duvall appears much in the film, each contributes to it powerfully; see Peters in Carmen Jones (1954), Porgy and Bess (1959), and then Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) to see how his career evolved over time, and don't miss Robert Duvall's performances in The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Tender Mercies (1983).