This review discusses the entire film, including all of the crucial moments and the ending, so if you are waiting to see the movie, I suggest you read this analysis afterwards. My review of the novel is located at To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
The 50th Anniversary DVD set of this classic American movie is truly special.
Not only is the film restored to its beautifully filmed black and white texture, but the set contains two additional full-length films, Fearful Symmetry, a poetic tribute to the book and the making of the film, and A Conversation with Gregory Peck, a film made by Peck’s daughter about his final few years when he toured, sharing his stories and answering questions from fans.
To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the greatest films ever made and the years have not diminished its greatness in any way. It is unusual to see a nearly perfect adaptation of a modern classic novel (Pulitzer Prize, 1960), but the combination of Harper Lee’s story, Horton Foote’s adaptation, Robert Mulligan’s direction, Henry Bumstead’s art direction, Russell Harlan’s cinematography, and Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful music make this film uniquely touching, a deeply penetrating portrait of small town rural life in the 1930’s, in the deep South.
The opening titles of the film immediately set it apart from everything that went before. As the camera works in extreme close-up on an old cigar box, the careless humming and babble of a little girl at play is the only sound. Opening the cigar box, we see carved images of a boy and girl, an old pocket watch, a pipe, a pocket knife, marbles, and crayons among other little things. She removes a crayon and begins to scrawl across a sheet of paper. As she colors, the words “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” appear in white behind the crayon. A piano plays a few simple notes, further immersing us in the feeling of childhood before the music swells.
This opening takes us into a world of innocence, a world that a little girl would find safe and comforting. The scene is Maycomb, Alabama in 1932, where attorney Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is raising two children, a boy of ten, Jem (Phillip Alford) and a girl of six, Scout (Mary Badham), with the help of a black housekeeper, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). Their neighbor across the street, Maudie (Rosemary Murphy) is very kind to the children and seems to have more than a passing interest in Atticus. Narration is provided by an adult (Kim Stanley), the voice of Scout as a woman looking back the events that shaped her life.
A country farmer, Walter Cunningham, Sr. (Crahan Denton) brings a sack of hickory nuts to the family and Scout gets Atticus to come out and accept them, which embarrasses the farmer. Atticus tells her that the man owes him for some legal work and that’s the only way he can pay and work off his entailment.
Into this peaceful summer idyll comes another boy, Charles Baker Harris (John Megna) who prefers to be called Dill. He’s from the big city (Mobile) and staying with his Aunt Stephanie (Alice Ghostley). As they play, Jem tells Dill about the house two doors down, a rundown shack inhabited by a crabby old man, Mr. Radley (Richard Hale) and his legendary son, Arther (Robert Duvall), known locally as Boo. No one has seen Boo for years and Jem speculates that he is kept chained to his bed, except at night when he roams the town looking in windows. When still a boy, Boo stabbed his father in the leg with scissors and was for a time kept in the court house basement before he was taken home and secreted away.
Atticus is friends with the local sheriff, Heck Tate (Frank Overton). Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) stops by one evening to ask Atticus if he would defend a young black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been accused of beating and raping Mayella (Collin Wilcox) the daughter of a white trash redneck alcoholic, Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell (James K Anderson). Atticus takes on the case in spite of the overwhelming odds.
Dill is facinated with the story of Boo Radley and he needles Jem into organizing a night trip into the Radley back yard. The three of them go and Jem actually goes up on the back porch and peeks in the window, but a menacing shadow scares him and the three of them run away. Jem’s trousers get caught on the fence and he wriggles out of them and joins the others in just his underwear. Knowing that he can’t go back inside the house without his pants, Jem goes back to get them and finds them folded on the fence.
This isn’t the only evidence of Boo, however, as Jem has been finding assorted items in a tree hollow for quite some time. He shows Scout his cigar box full of objects (the one she plays with in the opening credits). They find the little carved images of themselves just before Mr. Radley cements over the tree hollow.
Summer turns to fall and Dill returns home. Scout begins her first year of school by getting into a fight with Cunningham’s son. To smooth things over, Jem invites the boy home to dinner. During dinner, they talk about the Cunninghams having to hunt for their food. Annoyed with Atticus’s refusal to let him have a gun, Jem brings up the subject of Atticus getting his first gun and Atticus relates the story that his father told him, that he was allowed to shoot birds, but never a mockingbird, because all they did was sing and it would be a shame to kill one.
Scout keeps getting into fights at school, mostly because the other kids accuse Atticus of being a “nigger lover.” He must sit her down and explain about racial hatred and his own duty to defend Robinson even though the whole community is against him.
One day, a mad dog appears on their street. Cal takes the children inside and calls Atticus, who arrives with Heck. The sheriff asks Atticus to shoot the dog, but Scout protests that Atticus can’t shoot. However, Hecks says that Atticus is the best shot in the county, so he takes the gun and kills the dog in one shot. Jem watches with big, round eyes, astounded that their daddy can shoot so well. It is a simple scene, but serves as a metaphor for the madness that is to follow.
Winter turns to summer again. Heck has been keeping Tom Robinson in a distant jail, but before the trial, he brings the man back to Maycomb to be held overnight. Fearing a lynching, Atticus sits in front of the jailhouse door and waits. The kids sneak up to see what Atticus is doing and they watch as several cars approach and men with guns get out to face the lawyer. Scout runs to her dad and Jem and Dill follow as she pushes her way through the crowd. Although Atticus orders them to leave, Jem stoutly refuses. Seeing Mr. Cunningham in the crowd, Scout says hello to him and talks about how bad it is to have an entailment. Shamed, Cunningham leaves and takes the lynch mob with him.
When the trial begins, the kids can’t into the courtoom on the main floor, reserved for whites only, so the black preacher takes them with him up to the balcony where the blacks sit and they watch the trial from there.
The case against Tom Robinson consists entirely of superficial evidence. There is Heck’s testimony of that Bob Ewell came to see him, claiming that his daughter had been beaten and raped and his description of her on the night he saw her. In cross examination, Atticus asks why no doctors were called and there is no reasonable explanation, but he does elicit testimony that she was beaten on the right side of her face (ie. would have to have been made by a left handed person). When Bob Ewell testifies, Atticus shows that he is left handed. Tom doesn’t have use of his left hand, as it was injured in an accident. Ewell testifies that he saw Tom leaving the property, but he didn’t see the beating and rape.
Finally, the victim herself, Mayella, takes the stand. Although she gets frequently confused and even contradicts herself on occasion, she dramatically declares that Tom beat and raped her. Under cross, Atticus attempts to get her to admit that her father frequently beat her, but she does not break. He tries to get her to describe the rape and she won’t, instead dramatically declaring that the whole bunch of “yellow cowards” would never get her to change her story, so Atticus gives up. The prosecution rests.
The only witness for the defense is Tom Robinson himself. During his testimony, he admits that Mayella invited him onto their property more than once to do little errands for her and states that on the night in question, she invited him into her house, closed the door, and kissed him, asking that he kiss her back. He resisted and ran from the property. During the cross examination, the District Attorney, Mr. Gilmer (William Windom) gets Tom to admit that he felt sorry for Mayella and that seems to anchor the case against him.
During his closing statement, Atticus hammers home that there is no evidence against Tom and asks the jury not to hold it against him that “a black man felt sorry for a white woman.”
The trial scene presents the only serious weaknesses in the movie. While it is not hard to believe that a rural south town would rush the trial through in one day back in the 1930’s, it is not believable that Atticus, with a year to prepare, would miss such obvious advantages. Heck testifies that Mayella had bruise marks all around her neck, as if someone had held her by the throat. Since Tom cannot use his left hand, he could have only held her with his right. Atticus should have pointed this out over and over and used it in his cross examination of Mayella. He should have hammered the point over and over that Tom could not have left the black eye and bruises on the right side of her face since he couldn’t use his left hand. You would think that he would have canvassed neighbors or townspeople to see if there was ever any evidence that Mayella had beaten by her father before or seen if the town doctor had ever treated her for it. He certainly could have brought forward testimony that Ewell was drunk most of the time. It seems like Atticus just didn’t prepare much of a defense. Then, in his closing argument, he missed one opportunity after another to hammer home that Tom could not–physcially–have committed the rape. It seemed over-simplified to me.
The second problem in the trial scene is that the director allowed–and probably encouraged–a certain amount of over-acting. It can be seen most dramatically in the testimony of Bob and Mayella Ewell, which almost made me laugh. That should have been controlled.
Of course, the all male white jury finds Tom Robinson guilty. While in transit to a different jail, Tom attempts to run and is shot. This hits Jem very hard. It seems that there is no real justice in the world and it deeply bothers him. Summer turns to fall again and Scout has to dress up in a ham outfit for a school play. Afterwards, her dress is missing, so she has to walk home wearing her ham costume, escorted by Jem. They are attacked in the woods by Bob Ewell, who breaks Jem’s arm and throws him down, knocking him out. As he goes to attack Scout, Boo Radley steps in and, during the scuffle, sticks a knife into Ewell’s ribs, killing him. He picks up Jem and carries him home, with Scout, now free of her costume, following along behind.
To bring justice full circle, Heck suggests that they say that Ewell fell on his own knife. Atticus at first seems more intent on placing the action in Jem’s hands, so that he could claim self-defense, but the sheriff reminds him that bringing Boo out into the limelight would be awful for him and that justice would be served by simply saying that Ewell fell on his knife. Scout tells Atticus that bringing boo into the limelight would be like killing a mockingbird.
The film ends with little Scout walking Boo home, then snuggling into Atticus’s arms as he watches over Jem in bed.
Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus is easily the best of his career and it earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor. It is understated and is mostly free of the theatrics that marked many of Peck’s performances during his career. He creates for us a thoughtful, intelligent father, who does his duty not only his children and the town, but to justice itself. The children are good, especially for kids with no acting experience. Phillip Alford as Jem is the better of the two. His performance is believable throughout the movie and can stand with Peck’s. Mary Badham, as Scout, has a few moments when she seems to be acting, rather than living her part, but when she is good, which is most of the time, she is very good indeed. The scene where Atticus puts her to bed and she asks about his pocket watch is as good as it gets. She is so natural as a curious and lovable little girl that it really touches your heart.
All of the supporting actors are terrific, down to the smallest role, and it makes Maycomb seem to live as a real Alabama town in 1932. Brock Peters went on to have a great career as an actor and both Alice Ghostley and Robert Duvall, who made their acting debuts in this movie, went on to have stellar careers. Duvall is now considered one of the best actors of the 20th century.
I am glad the film was shot in black and white because it seems just so appropriate for a time when our country seemed to be black and white. The cinematography by Russell Harlan takes advantage of the medium and seems to make the shades of black and whtie sing, creating a metaphor for the story itself. Elmer Bernstein’s score is truly inspired, especially the little piano compositions that emphasize the innocence of childhood.
This is a film that everybody should see. In preparing for this review, I watched the film twice and got even more out of it the second time around. Released in 1962, it was a socially concious film that brought racial justice into the public’s eyes at time of great social change. Atticus himself seems to take on the soul of the liberal white world, making the point that it was time to stand up and see that racial equality was a significant issue in this country and that our country could not be whole again until the issue was settled.
But where the film is most successful is in showing the end of innocence. For the children, it is coming to understand a complicated and hateful world that needs changing, of growing up into people who do not fight, but who oppose injustice, even against seemingly insurmountable odds.
It is a shame to kill a mockingbird.