Directed by Robert Mulligan
To Kill a Mockingbird
One of the classics of American film is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and to see it after all these years –it was released in 1962 – is an unexpectedly powerful experience. I think what makes it work, what makes it so powerful, is that director Robert Mulligan insists that – like the book – everything is shown through the children’s eyes: Scout, played by the then 10-year-old Mary Badham (and playing about age 7); and her brother Jem, played by the 14-year-old Phillip Alford (who is also playing younger). So that everything that happens – the rabid dog in the street, the menacing figure of Boo Radley, the unacknowledged hatred of southern whites for blacks; the supposed rape by Tom Robinson (played by the monumental Brock Peters) and his trial and his railroaded conviction against all the evidence – all these things, which today we just shudder at – are seen with fresh eyes by the children.
And Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for his performance, plays Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the small southern town, who’s also the children’s father. Peck, who had a limited range as an actor, seems just about perfect for the role. He had a wonderful speaking voice and the tall, quiet confidence of a star who knew just how to play the role. And when Mulligan shot the film, he used long, long takes that let the drama play out. He almost never did what so many directors do today, which is to cut within scenes from one actor to another. If someone’s back was to the camera, that was fine with him; just like real life, you might say. And that actually increased the tension and the meaning of each scene. And there were many moments in which the children were just children, so there never had to be a suspension of our disbelief. In fact, there’s a wonderful moment near the end, when Scout is inside a giant ham made of papier maché, for a Halloween play at school, and the film uses that for both comic effect and for a brutal moment of tension.
The actress Kim Stanley provides a narration by a grown-up Scout, and it serves two purposes: one, to let us know that Scout is not in danger during the events of the film; and second, to let us know that she will become a wise and perceptive adult.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a classic that deserves all the attention it’s received over the years. I watched the DVD twice – once to see the film, the next to hear director Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula talking about the film as it unspooled. I suggest you do the same.