Saturday, August 1, 2009

Repeat Viewing: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

TSPDT placing: #252
Directed by: Robert Mulligan
Written by: Harper Lee (novel), Horton Foote (screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) has stayed with me since the time I first saw it, perhaps because the film caught me at an impressionable age. This was in 2004, not a particularly long time ago, but it feels an age away. High school greets you at a young, idealistic age, when the world sits at your fingertips just waiting for you to take it. Having just read Harper Lee's Pullitzer Prize-winning novel in English class, we followed it with Robert Mulligan's film adaptation, which scored an Oscar for Gregory Pick and would have won Best Picture had David Lean not hustled in with his masterpiece. Even when lamentably broken up into fifty-minute intervals, To Kill a Mockingbird left me captivated by its magic – and, yes, there is magic. Though typically celebrated as a statement on racial prejudice in the American South, the true core of both Lee's novel and Mulligan's film is distanced from Tom Robinson's rape trial, and lies in terrible, wonderful and beautiful experience of growing up.
The film, as in Lee's novel, is told through the eyes of Scout Finch (Mary Badham; voiced by Kim Stanley as an adult), the tomboyish daughter of small-town lawyer Atticus (Gregory Peck) and younger sister of Jem (Phillip Alford). Along with visiting neighbour Dill (John Megna), the two siblings whittle away their summers obsessing over local recluse "Boo" Radley, an agoraphobic, mentally-ill man towards whom the children develop both a fear and fascination. Meanwhile, Atticus is appointed to defend an African American (Brock Peters) accused of raping a white woman, and his determination to give the man a fair trial leads to heated racial tensions in the bigoted Southern township. To Kill A Mockingbird follows Jem and Scout as they go about the processes of growing up, learning of the bitter immorality and prejudice that lurks beyond the security of their home. Ironically, the film is weakest during its narrative crux – Tom Robinson's courtroom trial – as Mulligan strains to keep the story focused around the children, though Peck's virtuous performance compensates for the lapse.
I've never quite been able to put my fingers around why To Kill A Mockingbird is, to me, such an emotionally-draining (and fulfilling) picture. Perhaps it's Elmer Bernstein's musical score, sad and wistful, like the lamentation of a fairy-tale punctuated by reality. Childhood itself is not unlike a fairy-tale, a time of infallible ideals and black-and-white ethics. Mulligan justly celebrates the steadfast moral courage of Atticus Finch, but the overriding emotion at Tom Robinson's sentencing is instead one of sinking disillusionment: while Scout watches on, uncomprehending, Jem buries his head in his arms, his childish conviction in the goodness of adults irreparably shattered. Yet, even then, hope survives for those who, like the Finch family, preserve their moral integrity. The film's fairy-tale mood, at times reminiscent of Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1957), is enforced most strongly in the children's final walk through the forest, described as their "longest journey together." Arthur "Boo" Radley, a mockingbird who might have been destroyed by less sympathetic souls, ultimately becomes their saviour.

Currently my #2 film of 1962:
1) Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
2) To Kill A Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)
3) La Jetée {The Pier} (Chris Marker)
4) Le Procès {The Trial} (Orson Welles)
5) Birdman of Alcatraz (John Frankenheimer)
6) Ivanovo detstvo {Ivan’s Childhood} (Andrei Tarkovsky, Eduard Abalov)
7) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)
8) Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson)
9) Panic in Year Zero! (Ray Milland)
10) The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)

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