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1 Year, 100 Movies #25 To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

by Trey Hock on April 15, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

I am still happy with my Top 10 Movies as Good or Better Than Books They’re Based On, but #25 “To Kill a Mockingbird” could definitely make the revision. Harper Lee’s novel may be a mainstay of high school reading lists as well as a few banned book lists, but this beloved novel comes to life in director Robert Mulligan’s able hands.

Though I sometimes think of Harper Lee’s book in the same way that I see J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Both are good but too often either novel is the favorite book of those who stop reading after high school. Mulligan’s film breaks through my cynicism and provides a wonderful story of a young girl’s adoration of her father, and his struggle in the racially charged world of Alabama in the late 1930s.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” has had a tangible influence on many current filmmakers from Jared Hess to Wes Anderson. All you have to do is watch the opening credits sequence, which shows a child’s hands playing with various toys and coloring to see the profound visual and stylistic impact that this film has had.

Though the style and direction of the film were influential, the performances make the film great. Pauline Kael calls Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch, the small town lawyer appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, “virtuously dull.” Kael could not be further off base.

Whether or not you believe that Peck should have won the Academy Award over Peter O’Toole in 1963, it is hard, if not impossible, to argue that Peck doesn’t show a thorough mastery of his craft. Such subtle strength and compassion is rare in a character, and even more rarely praised by the Academy, which too often prizes more extravagant and apparent roles.

But I seem to be expounding beyond my normal introductions, so let’s get to the movie.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is the story of Scout (Mary Badham), a six-year-old girl in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The story focuses on a single year in her life. This is the year she started school, the year her father defended the accused Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), and the year that she and her brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), make an unexpected discovery about their neighbors, the reclusive Radleys.

Like most revelations within any coming-of-age story, the revelations in “To Kill a Mockingbird” unfold slowly. Jem has been asking for a rifle for some time, but Atticus has refused to give into his son. We are lead to believe that Atticus fears or hates guns, but when the Finch’s housekeeper, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans), calls Atticus home to take care of a rabid dog, his children find out that Atticus is a more complex man than they originally thought.

This moment of humble acceptance of an uncomfortable responsibility will come to represent Atticus. He does not want to shoot the dog, but given the situation he is the man for the job.

Jem in this moment sees the destructive and helpful power of the gun, as well as his father’s skillfulness with the weapon. Sherriff Tate’s (Frank Overton) comment about Atticus’ shooting ability comes as a surprise to his children.

We soon see that Atticus is not the only one with secrets. Jem has been collecting small trinkets from the knot in the tree down the lane. It seems that Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), an antisocial shut-in, has been leaving the toys and gifts for the Finch children for sometime. (Sound starts at 6 seconds.)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” explores what is hidden inside a person. Some have strengths or kindness that we did not see before. Others possess an intolerance or hatred that comes out over time. Regardless, both Jem and Scout are beginning to realize that the people around them are not the simple caricatures that so often fill a child’s mind.

Phillip Alford was 14 when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was released, and Mary Badham was just 10. Though both actors were young each gives a wonderful and multilayered performance. Most kids can make funny faces or come with a quippy canned one-liner, but in the quiet moments that fill “To Kill a Mockingbird” Alford and Badham must truly act. The film depends on their believability.

Often Badham must straddle the line between the world of a child and the adult world, which is fast approaching. When Tom Robinson is brought back to town for his trial, Atticus goes down to the local jail to intercept any people that may want to start trouble. Scout, not comprehending the danger that her father is in, runs to him.

Here the innocent warmth of a child’s recognition of and kindness towards a classmate’s father disarms the situation. Scout’s simple human act makes the men see their intended hateful act for what it is. This allows a genuine condemnation of the men, not by Atticus, but by a child who does not fully comprehend the situation.

Tom stays safe until his day in court. Bob Ewell (James Anderson) has accused Tom of raping his daughter, Mayella (Collin Wilcox Paxton), and now Atticus presses Tom to describe the events of the day in question.

Again we see the exceptional performances that are in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Peters, Anderson and Paxton each turn in impressive performances for their supporting roles, and in the middle of the courtroom Peck offers his solemn gravitas.

When the jury arrives at a verdict, we know what is to come.

Atticus knows that he is fighting a losing battle, but he doesn’t fight to win or lose. He fights because he must. Atticus’ motivation and dedication are not lost on the black people in the upper gallery, who stand to honor him as he passes.

When the Atticus and his family return home, neighbor Maudie (Rosemary Murphy), consoles Jem with this insight.

“Oh well.”

The understanding and simplicity of the moment come crashing down upon us, and in the next moment Atticus tells his family that Tom has been shot and killed during a supposed escape.

Roger Ebert claims that Pecks quiet and wearied acceptance of Tom’s death points to a flaw in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Ebert claims that the film focuses on the nobility of a liberal white in a racist South, and that Atticus’ quiet reaction is odd given the suspicious circumstances of Tom’s death.

I find this absurdly reductive. I wonder what Ebert would have Atticus do? Should he cry out? Run through the town screaming? Rail against a system that just beat him, and killed his client? Of course not.

Atticus’ acceptance of the news is one of sadness and defeat. He has expended the energy he has and has lost the battle. Atticus is the key figure in the story, because Scout, his daughter, is telling it, and her father is at the center of her world.

The trial may be over, but Bob Ewell’s crippling hate still burns. When Jem and Scout are walking home from the school pageant, Ewell attacks them. He breaks Jem’s arm, but is then stopped by unknown protector, who runs the injured Jem to the Finch’s home. When questioned, Scout attempts to piece together the attack.

He may only be in five minutes of the film, but Robert Duvall’s performance is amazing. He doesn’t say a word, but his eyes and body language speak volumes. Duvall gives a crazed guardian angel in Boo Radley.

Again Badham illustrates an understanding of character and performance beyond her years. It is not every 10-year-old that could go toe-to-toe with a scary blond Robert Duvall and hold his or her own, but Badham manages it with ease.

In this scene you can also see the use of music. The soundtrack is often apparent and masterfully used. It reinforces the emotions on screen without forcing or overplaying them. As I watched the film, posted clips, and wrote this particular column, I have watched this final scene six or seven times and each time I feel a surge of emotion as Boo looks down on the sleeping Jem and the music rises. I know it’s coming and why, but it still moves me. That power is at the heart of great filmmaking.

Kael didn’t really like it, Ebert gave it two and a half stars, and Bosley Crowther called it flawed, but I say haters gonna hate. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is an excellent adaptation of a novel that, given the time of its release, could have been overly preachy and self-righteous.

Instead Mulligan’s direction and a number of stellar performances from the cast give us a wonderful story of an extraordinary year in the life of a young girl in the Depression era South. Watch it again and see if you agree.

Up Next #24 “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

1 Year, 100 Movies #26 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

1 Year, 100 Movies #27 High Noon (1952)

1 Year, 100 Movies #28 All About Eve (1950)

1 Year, 100 Movies #29 Double Indemnity (1944)

For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)

For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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