Saturday, September 24, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

Gregory Peck
Brock Peters
Collin Wilcox
Mary Badham
Phillip Alford
Robert Duvall
William Windom
Estelle Evans
Rosemary Murphy
James Anderson
Directed by
Robert Mulligan
Based on the Pulitzer Prize Winning  Novel
Harper Lee
* * * * *
Macon was a tired old town even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow it was hotter then. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock nap and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. The day was 24 hours long but it seemed longer. There was no hurry because there was no where to go and nothing to buy and no money to buy it with although Macon County had recently been told that there was nothing to fear but fear itself. That summer I was six years old.
* * * * *
I distinctly remember that the first time I saw To Kill A Mockingbird was at a drive-in theater. I was probably about ten or eleven at the time but I can’t be sure. Even at a young age I was captivated by this seemingly simple story told through the eyes of children making it possible for the film to draw even younger viewers such as myself into it’s world.   

Perhaps I was also  drawn to it because a good deal of the story was about a very scary fellow by the name of  Boo Radley, who was a mysterious and eerie presence even throughout the film even though he isn’t even seen on screen until the very end. I'm not about to make the pretense that I understood much of the social significance of To Kill A Mockingbird at that age. How many children would unless it was a topic of discussion at home with their parents or at school with their teachers?  I did not have the advantage of either one of those scenarios.   My deep and never ending devotion towards the book and the film, was encased inside me after  repeated viewings.  It is a film I never tire of.

One of the things that makes To Kill A Mockingbird a great film is the love and respect everyone involved in bringing Harper Lee's novel to the screen had for the original source material. It shows  in every second of running time and in every single frame.  Each performance in this film is perfect.

Gregory Peck certainly  had many fine performances over his long and  storied career, but never again reached depth of humanity that he brought to his portrayal of Atticus Finch.   Is it no wonder that his was one of the most deserving Oscars ever awarded, and that his portrayal of Atticus is more than validated by being named the Number One Hero  in American Cinema by the AFI.

As Atticus, Peck’s love for Jem and Scout enables him to treat his children with respect and honesty. He never talks down to them, but approaches them on a level in which children of their age can comprehend enabling them to learn from his own years of wisdom. He doesn’t preach to them, he shows, he explains, and with every lesson there is sometimes a story or a parable.  There is an early moment in the film in which Atticus is reading to Scout that in just a few brief moments lays bare everything you need to know about his relationship with this children.

Atticus is also a man who believes in the integrity of justice, yet recognizes the failings of our judicial system. When called upon to do his duty, he does so, despite the hatred and venom he knows is going to be brought to bear upon his family by the citizens of the town in which he resides.

Because he puts justice, fairness, and values ahead of his own well being and safety, we know he is a man of great moral principle with a sense of honor and duty. When he is told he has been appointed to defend the Negro, Tom Robinson, he agrees to do so almost reluctantly.  Not because it isn’t the right thing to do, but because it is a job he would rather not have to do.  Atticus knows that in a more perfect world, the Tom Robinsons of the world who are so obviously innocent, would never be brought to trial in the first place.

In casting Jem, Scout and Dill, Producer Alan J. Pakula and Director Robert Mulligan faced a daunting task. So much of the success of To Kill A Mockingbird depended on the pivotal role these actors would play in the film.

For Jem he chose Philip Alford, for Scout, Mary Badham, and for Dill, John Megna. Alford and Badham were both southern natives who had never been in films before. Megna was a New York native but was also inexperienced. It is this inexperience and lack of polish that enables all three to shine. Mulligan began filming by letting them act as if making a film was like recess, allowing them to play on the set, and only moving the camera gradually as they became accustomed to their surroundings. It paid off in every way imaginable. None of the three ever appear as if they are actors acting, and bring a childlike wonder and presence to their roles that I had never seen before, and have not witnessed to the same degree at any time since. This may have been the best casting of children in any film ever.

Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, also gives a performance which he would never again surpass. You will not find anywhere a more memorable scene in any court room than when he testifies on the witness stand. Because he dared to care about a white girl, he now faces almost certain death if convicted, and perhaps even if not convicted there is still the danger of lynching, something that almost happens before he even makes it to trial.

It is the first time I was able to begin to understand the effects of man's prejudice and hatred of a man simply because of the color of his skin. Just as Jem and Scout came of age, and realized the significance of the injustices of racial hatred, so did I.

Equally significant, is Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell. She makes it easy for many to despise her, and such hatred is a natural reaction. But the more we view the film the more we become like Atticus and see in her a person to be more pitied than hated.

She is a product of not only the times in which she lives, but even more so of her wretched upbringing. But understanding that, it by no means excuses it, as even to this day there are those who spread the seeds of racism as if it were an Ebola virus.

Mayella is a victim of an endless cycle of poverty, ignorance, and racism. But ignorance and racism is not the sole province of the poor.  Even to this day it is a tool of a political party to control those who wallow in their dreams of white privilege in order to maintain political power.

Mayella is what she is, but only because of the deep cutting prejudices of those around her. It is Mayella’s heritage that makes her what she is, a heritage that is passed on from one generation, to the the next and every generation thereafter.

To Mayella, being caught enticing a black man into your house for relations  is the ultimate crime and the penalty for doing so is unthinkable.

Is it no wonder that even after this film, the it took the Supreme Court until 1968 to outlaw the final vestiges of state ignorance which continue to have statutes outlawing marriage between different races?

In his screen debut as Boo Radley, Robert Duvall also brings to life the mysterious neighbor that once frightened Jem, Dill, and Scout so much. Though on the screen for a short length of time, without uttering a word, Duvall shows us a man tortured by years of cruelty, mistreatment, and the gossip and whispers of neighbors. He is a man who wants only to live in his own way and to be left alone, yet the bond that links him to Jem and Scout is significant. They are the childhood he had never really known. Just as Tom Robinson, he has never brought harm to anyone, yet suffers  just for the right to be able to exist.
Estelle Evans as the Finch’s housekeeper Calpurnia brings a no nonsense approach to the role. She may be the maid, but she’s as much a part of the Finch household as if she were a member of the family and the children respect her for it. When Scout begins to question Walter Cunningham’s (Steve Condit) strange use of maple syrup, Cal yanks Scout into the Kitchen and promptly reads her the riot act.

Yet, when Atticus drives her home it is required that she ride in the back seat of the car. One can imagine the trouble that would be stirred up in a Southern town in the 30’s if a black woman was seen riding in a car sitting next to a white man.
There is not too many villains in any film that are more despicable than James Anderson as Bob Ewell.  For him, we have no pity. We feel only utter contempt from the first time that we meet him. He has no redeeming qualities to speak of. In the wrong hands, the character might have been played overly broad or way over the top, but Anderson avoids that trap by letting us know that not only is Ewell no better than human feces, he could also very well be the guy across the street, the guy who comes into your store every day, the guy who comes stumbling out of the liquor store in a drunken stupor.  He is just as mean and dangerous drunk as he is sober.

The care with which To Kill A Mockingbird was brought to the screen can also be seen in the Art Direction by Henry Bumstead and Set Decoration by Oliver Emert. They bring to life the look and feel of a  small Southern Town to such a degree, that we are easily transported to a time and place of a bygone era.

Cinematographer Russel Harlan's black and white photography brings it all vividly to the screen, especially in the way he captures the foreboding of the Radley house, the moments when Bob Ewell approaches Jem when he is left in a car alone, and even more noteworthy near the end of the film when Jem and Scout are walking home from a school play.

If it had been filmed in color, this film would have lost much of its sense of time, setting and mood.

Elmer Bernstein's score is never boisterous, but is as important to setting the mood of many of the scenes played out before us. For the most part he keeps it simple, only swelling the orchestra when it is absolutely necessary, generally when there is danger afoot.  He is one of the great film composers of all time.  His list of composing credits is almost endless, but this one will remain one of the most memorable.
Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill A Mockingbird Score. One of the most appropriate scores ever written.

There have been many eloquent words written over the years about both the novel and the film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird. It will be forever remembered, long after I am gone, and long after I am writing my reviews in that great movie palace in the sky. There is no doubt in my mind that To Kill A Mockingbird has been and shall remain one of the great achievements in American cinema and literature in my lifetime, and shall remain so for many lifetimes to come. A remarkable film in every sense of the word. My only regret is that the powerful lessons it brought to the screen in 1962, are still ignored to a great over 50 years later.  A+

* * * * *
Neighbors bring food with death, and flowers with sickness, and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a knife, and our lives. One time Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them; just standin' on the Radley porch was enough. The summer that had begun so long ago had ended, and another summer had taken its place, and a fall, and Boo Radley had come out. I was to think of these days many times. Of Jem, and Dill, and Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson, and Atticus. He would be in Jem's room all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

No comments:

Post a Comment