|Best performance: Brock Peters as Tom Robinson|
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). Director: Robert Mulligan.
Small-town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), lives with his small daughter, "Scout" (Mary Badham of Let's Kill Uncle) and her slightly older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), and their black part-time housekeeper, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). The children are obsessed with a never-seen neighbor "Boo" Radley (Robert Duvall), who leaves them little trinkets in the hole of a tree and is said to be crazy. Atticus begins getting threats from the townspeople when he decides to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been accused of rape by the neurotic Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox) -- in court it becomes very clear that Robinson is innocent but racism must have its day. At the end of the film the two storylines -- Boo and Robinson -- come together when the childrens' lives are threatened and they have an unexpected savior. While it's easy to see why many people love this picture, it does have more than its share of problems and has not worn well with time. For one thing the movie, while admirably against racism, is awfully self-conscious and self-congratulatory, almost as if it were putting out a sign saying "Important, Socially-Aware Film Here. Don't You Dare Criticize!" [For the record, To Kill a Mockingbird is hardly the first film to deal with racism. In This Our Life, which was also based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and was made twenty years earlier, also had a black man -- the first non-domestic positive black character in a Hollywood film -- wrongly accused of a crime.] Elmer Bernstein's musical score does a lot of the work for this movie, and is quite good, although at times it is also positively cloying. Badham, Alford and John Megna as their friend, Dill (said to be based on novelist Harper Lee's friend, Truman Capote) are all marvelous child actors, and there are other good performances in the film. Peck won an Oscar (as did Badham) and while the role of Addicus is in his range (unlike the sexy bad boy in Duel in the Sun), he perhaps underplays too much, hardly giving the kind of impassioned speech that might have gotten through to the jurors. Admittedly Addicus (at least in the film) may be mild-mannered, but Peck almost makes him wimpy. While we're on the subject of racism, the very talented Brock Peters is superior to Peck in his brief scenes, but he never got an Oscar nod as supporting player, making the whole project seem hypocritical to say the least. [Although it could be argued that it is not the fault of the filmmakers if the Academy was behind the times.] On the plus side, Robert Mulligan's direction is generally assured, and Russell Harlan's cinematography is superb. The kids calling their father "Addicus" instead of "Dad" is never explained and becomes irritating very quickly. Since its publication in 1960 people have been debating whether Harper Lee's source novel is great literature or just a young adult novel with socially significant themes. Mulligan also directed Fear Strikes Out and many others.
Verdict: A painfully obvious message movie that was notable in its day. **1/2.