Saturday, June 27, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Director: Robert Mulligan                                   Writer: Horton Foote
Film Score: Elmer Bernstein                              Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford and Robert Duvall

Though it has one of the best reputations in Hollywood--and probably would have won the Academy Award that year if not for Lawrence of Arabia--I found To Kill a Mockingbird to be a disappointing film. Of course the story is from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee that captivated the country upon publication and has continued to be required reading in schools ever since. In fact, Lee’s success was so daunting that she never attempted to publish another novel afterward. The singular aim of the novel, intended or not, is to demonstrate the insidious effect of prejudice by intertwining two stories, one about a white shut-in who is the subject of negative rumors around town and the other is a black man falsely accused of rape. In both instances it is people’s prejudice that keeps them from bothering to discover the truth about either man. That is the job of the young narrator, Scout Finch who, along with her brother Jem, discovers that the truth about people is not always readily apparent and that there are dangers continuing to ignore it. Unfortunately, Horton Foote’s screenplay allows the white man to redeem himself in the town’s eyes, while letting the black man continue to twist in the wind of racism.

The film begins with the establishment of the time and place, Alabama in the midst of the Great Depression, as well as the Finch family. Widower Gregory Peck plays the patriarch while newcomers Mary Badham and Phillip Alford are his children. Peck is a lawyer in a small town and one of the leaders of the community. When a small boy, John Megna, is visiting his aunt next door he makes friends with Badham and Alford, and the three become obsessed with the mysterious neighbor down the block, Boo Radley, who never leaves his house. At the same time Peck is asked to take the case of Brock Peters, a black man accused of rape by poor white trash James Anderson and his daughter Collin Wilcox. When Peck agrees to do his best to acquit Peters, the people of the county get angry at him for not going along with the accepted order of things in the racist South. Though Peck loses the case, he winds up humiliating Anderson in the process, proving not only that Peters is innocent, but that Anderson himself is the one who beat his daughter. It is Anderson’s act of revenge that takes up the last act of the film and finally brings the reclusive Robert Duvall out of his house.

Because of the success of the novel, there was little difficulty in getting the film made. Gregory Peck signed on as soon as he was asked, and delivered a career-defining performance, reinforced by his winning of the Oscar for best actor that year. The two children were cast through an exhaustive process of looking at hundreds of children, and were so effective that they will forever be associated with those characters in the minds of audiences who see the film. Mary Badham was even nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress. Three actors made their debut in the film, the first was Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, who was cast at the suggestion of Horton Foote. The second was Alice Ghostley who played the aunt of John Megna. Finally, the great William Windom was cast as the prosecuting attorney in the trial. The direction by Robert Mulligan is fairly undistinguished, as was his career, though he certainly didn’t embarrass himself. One of the high points in the film is the piano-centered score by Elmer Bernstein, who already had several classic film scores to his credit at the time. The other Oscar the picture received was for best black-and-white production design, which is really very good. Further nominations went to the picture, the director, and to Russell Harlan’s cinematography.

One of the best things Harper Lee’s novel has going for it is her wealth of social criticism. Everything from the ineffectiveness of public schools and the injustice of the legal system, to the anti-intellectualism of Americans and the hypocrisy of religion are exposed for all to see though the objective gaze of her young narrator. But with a deft hand, Horton Foote managed to expunge everything that could possibly be controversial, which is to say, interesting, and leaves the story a mere husk of childhood events. Even worse, the very backbone of the novel, where Lee demonstrates that the Brock Peters character was executed so that he couldn’t go free on appeal, is changed in such a way that it only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes of blacks and subverts the centerpiece of the film, the closing argument by Peck that has always been at the heart of people’s love of the film. The real travesty of the film is that Foote was awarded the Oscar for his adaptation, as though he was being rewarded for reinforcing the status quo under the guise of a fictional exposé. While To Kill a Mockingbird is considered a masterpiece, it nevertheless fails to live up to it’s potential and therefore must be considered a flawed classic.

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