Thursday 18 April 2013

1,001 Films: "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962)

"That summer, I was six years old." A venerable adaptation of Harper Lee's novel, Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird stands as one of the totemic works of the "holiday that changed my life" subgenre, as well as a lasting document of a period of rapid social change - and several landmark civil-rights cases - in the States. We're in the American South, some time in the 1930s. Lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is defending a black farmworker accused of raping his boss's daughter, while Finch's children mill around just, well, looking at stuff for the most part. Compared to the other key movie rape case of the era - 1959's groundbreaking Anatomy of a Murder - To Kill a Mockingbird is indeed kids' stuff, but that child's-eye perspective results in the film forming a curious companion piece to The Night of the Hunter, now considered the most "adult" studio picture of the 1950s. 

Yet again, we're in the American heartlands; yet again, we end up with babes in the woods; and yet again, crisp monochrome photography serves to point up the relationship between the colours black and white, and the inference of good and evil attached to them. The inverse of his Cape Fear co-star Robert Mitchum in Hunter, Peck's the very image of decency here, but it's not much of an assignment: he's asked, as though by a teacher, to do no more than be good. The real centre of the movie, it transpires, is not his Atticus - the great liberal comfort blanket: a man so upstanding he lacks depth or dimension, with not a crease or wrinkle to be observed in his personality, nor his suit - but the character's offspring, and their friends. Mulligan allows his juvenile leads to treat Lee's world as one giant playground, a place for adventure and discovery, which they're forever seen pushing their way into, jamming their bodies inside tyres, under porches, between railings.

Horton Foote's screenplay, on the other hand, keeps imposing its own authority, so much of the film alternates between wagging its finger sternly and patting you on the head. Perhaps that's why the second half gets entrenched in the courtroom, where the judge looks as though he's about to nod off during some of the more "emotive" testimony, and the earnest waffle of Finch's summation only restates conciliatory material expressed more succinctly and touchingly earlier in the film - like the scene where the lawyer pulls up outside his client's shack, and the two men's boys, struck by the kind of curiosity that informs all the kid scenes, offer tentative waves to one another. Moments like these ensure it remains a lovely world to spend two hours in; for better and worse, no film in the Hollywood canon before or since has been this determined to recreate the experience of being of impressionable school age.

To Kill a Mockingbird is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

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