Harper Lee’s highly regarded and eminently successful first novel has been artfully and delicately translated to the screen. Universal’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a major film achievement, a significant, captivating and memorable picture that ranks with the best of recent years. Its success in the literary world seems certain to be replicated in the theatrical sphere.
All hands involved are to be congratulated for a job well done. Obviously loving care went into the process by which it was converted from the comprehensive prose of the printed page to the visual and dramatic storytelling essence of the screen. Horton Foote’s trenchant screenplay, Robert Mulligan’s sensitive and instinctively observant direction and a host of exceptional performances are all essential threads in the rich, provocative fabric and skillfully synthesized workmanship of Alan J. Pakula’s production.
As it unfolds on the screen, “To Kill a Mockingbird” bears with it, oddly enough, alternating overtones of Faulkner, Twain, Steinbeck, Hitchcock and an Our Gang comedy. The power and fascination of the story lies in the disarming and enthralling contrast of its two basic plot components. A telling indictment of racial prejudice in the deep South, it is also a charming tale of the emergence of two youngsters from the realm of wild childhood fantasy to the horizon of maturity, responsibility, compassion and social insight. It is the story of a wise, gentle, soft-spoken Alabama lawyer (Gregory Peck) entrusted with the formidable dual chore of defending a Negro falsely accused of rape while raising his own impressionable, imaginative, motherless children in a hostile, terrifying environment of bigotry and economic depression.
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For Peck, it is an especially challenging role, requiring him to conceal his natural physical attractiveness yet project through a veneer of civilized restraint and resigned, rational compromise the fires of social indignation and humanitarian concern that burn within the character. He not only succeeds, but makes it appear effortless, etching a portrayal of strength, dignity, intelligence. Another distinguished achievement for an actor whose taste and high standards of role selectivity is attested to by the caliber of his films and performances throughout his career.
But by no means is this entirely, or even substantially, Peck’s film. Two youngsters just about steal it away, although the picture marks their screen bows. Both nine-year-old Mary Badham and 13-year-old Phillip Alford, each of whom hails from the South, make striking debuts as Peck’s two irrepressible, mischievous, ubiquitous, irresistibly childish children. More than one filmgoer will be haunted by sweet, misty recollections of his own childhood while observing their capers and curiosities. Both are handsome, talented, expressive youngsters who seem destined to enjoy rewarding careers. They are joined in their activities by little John Megna, an unusual-looking tyke who also makes a vivid and infectious impression.
The merit and restraint of these three junior performances reflects great credit on the direction of Mulligan. But, paradoxically, the value of the spontaneous combustion that he has achieved with his young threesome has produced the picture’s main flaw. For half the time the children, in their verbal zeal, cannot be heard clearly. This ragged articulation of youth is a definite irritant. But it is overshadowed by the overall excellence of their enactments.
Mulligan’s ability to coax such fine portrayals out of pint-sized tyros is only one facet of his superlative contribution to the film. Most noteworthy is the manner in which he instills and heightens tension and terror where they are absolutely essential. Recognizing that menace cannot be expressed with more shock or impact than is seen in the eyes of the beholder, especially when the beholder is a child, he has done a masterful job of determining points-of-view from which Russell Harlan’s camera witnesses the story’s more frightening incidents. And again, in the long courtroom scene, Mulligan and Harlan have teamed to create a significant moment by inventive employment of the camera. When Peck, in defending his client and making his impassioned plea for justice, addresses his remarks to the bigoted jury, he is actually leaning over and speaking not to 12 people, but directly to the entire audience in the theatre.
(This is a film that should play well in the American South. The artful, intimate manner in which the scene is thus mounted and executed will be hitting home where it counts the most.)
There are some top-notch supporting performances. Especially sharp and effective are Frank Overton, Estelle Evans, James Anderson and Robert Duvall. Brock Peters has an outstanding scene as the innocent, ill-fated Negro on trial for his life.
Likewise Collin Wilcox as his Tobacco Roadish “victim.” Others of value are Rosemary Murphy, Ruth White, Paul Fix, Alice Ghostley, William Windom, Crahan Denton and Richard Hale. Pakula rates credit for his careful-unorthodox casting measures. It is a pleasure to see so many fresh faces on the screen.
The physical appearance and other production facets of the film merit high praise. Harlan’s photographic textures and compositions create a number of indelible images. Aaron Stell’s editing is stable and snug, in spite of the long running time and the fact that the story virtually cuts its main continuity in half with the central courtroom passage. Art directors Alexander Golitzen and Henry Bumstead have created sets in Hollywood that authentically convey the physique and characteristic of 1932 Alabama. Last, but not least, there is Elmer Bernstein’s haunting score–fundamentally wistful, sweet and childlike in the nature of its themes, but behind which there seems to lurk something morbidly chilling, something imminently eerie.
1962: Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Adapted Screenplay, B&W Art Direction.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actress (Mary Badham), B&W Cinematography, Original Music Score