To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

D: Robert Mulligan
S: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Philip Alford

Sensitive and moving adaptation of Harper Lee's tender novel about the collision between juvenile and adult worlds during a fraught summer in the 1930s. Racial tensions mount in a quiet Southern town when upright lawyer and father Gregory Peck defends a black man (Brock Peters) accused of rape. As his children (Mary Badham and Philip Alford) have adventures of their own, mostly surrounding their fears of the lurking mystery man next door, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), they begin to perceive the greater importance of what is going on around them, but only through the filter of their burgeoning sense of the adult world. Well cast, superbly acted, beautifully photographed in rich black & white, evocatively designed and scored, the film is marvelously crafted on every level. Peck is excellent in his Oscar-winning role, but every member of the cast performs with a distinctive low-key timbre which is testament to director Robert Mulligan's delicate rendering of screenwriter Horton Foote's adaptation.

The film is best in its understated sequences, especially those involving the children. Though the all-important courtroom scene which comprises the third quarter of the film is also well mounted and very gripping, it is does alter the spellbinding tone which has been carefully sustained to that point. Throughout its first half, the film neatly charts the everyday lives of widower Peck and his family. Badham and Alford shine in children's roles written with sensitivity but not sentimentality, and there is a suitable delineation between the characters in terms of their age, gender, and levels of self-awareness. As the adult story begins to assert itself, Mulligan pulls of the tricky balancing act of retaining a sense of both worlds. Peck explains the difficult concepts of responsibility, tolerance, and duty to his children without condescension. As Badham and Alford begin to understand, they take a more active part in the proceedings, yet their lives are still defined in simple terms, largely through their love and respect for their father. The scene where Badham defuses an angry mob by speaking to one of its members is a lovely illustration of how the two worlds remain separate but intertwined.

As a drama on racial intolerance, To Kill A Mockingbird is more tentative than Roger Corman's contemporaneous The Intruder and still a tad more white and well meaning than films which would come later including In the Heat of the Night. It still makes its points eloquently, and though the perhaps all-too-literal summation provided by the legal drama makes it explicit, the issue of perception and (mis)understanding runs throughout the film in the form of Badham and Alford's fascination with Boo Radley. It is fortunate that it comes to a satisfying climax which ties up all of the narrative threads, but credit for this is due of course to Lee herself. Otherwise there is a constant danger that the 'message' will overwhelm the drama. Luckily, this does not happen, and the hypnotic tone reasserts itself for the emotionally affecting but again quiet and understated resolution.

To Kill A Mockingbird is also a fascinating portrait of childhood, and is interesting when lain alongside Charles Laughton's neglected masterpiece Night of the Hunter. Like Laughton's film, To Kill A Mockingbird integrates familiar themes of the end of innocence with a self-consistent adult drama. In Laughton's film (from the novel by Davis Grubb), it was a thriller about a murderer in pursuit of money, here it is the problems faced by Peck in defending his client against judicial and personal prejudice. In neither case do the children themselves serve any less important a role than the adults, and here Badham particularly becomes the narrative, thematic, and emotional pivot on which the film turns. Though Alford is visibly more 'adult' than his on-screen sister, the events are largely seen through her (rather than his) eyes, and this is crucial in allowing the film its moments of childlike hesitancy.

Peck, Foote, and art director Henry Bumstead won Oscars, but the film received deserved nominations in five other categories. Well worth a look, though its pace is probably best appreciated on the big screen.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.