To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

reviewed by
Steve Rhodes

                           TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
                       A film review by Steve Rhodes
                        Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes
RATING (0 TO ****):  ****

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is one of the best movies made in the 1960s. Until we rented it over the holidays, I had not seen it in its entirety in a couple of decades. Made in black and white in 1962 at a time when other movies had switched to color, it shattered many notions of what was right.

The story is set in the South in 1932. The South of the movie has prejudiced rednecks, simple townsfolk, a brave lawyer, a condemned man, a lynch mob, a crazy man and three kids trying to sort it all out.

There are two interwoven tales. The first revolves around the small town life of the children. Jean Louise "Scout" (Mary Badham) and Jem (Philip Alford) are the children of Atticus Finch, played in a strong, heartwarming, and Academy Award winning role by Gregory Peck. The two kids have their friend Dill (John Megna) accompany them frequently on their escapades. This part of the movie has a Capraesque quality. Mary Badham got an Academy Award nomination for her acting, and it is easy to see why as she is, at once, both innocent and wise. Too often child actors are no more than cute, sometimes painfully so. All three of these kids give skillful performances of real depth.

An integral part of this first tale is their next door neighbor Arthur "Boo" Radley. It seems Boo is the local bogeyman, or so all the kids believe. There are many stories about Boo, including the time he stabbed his father with his scissors. Boo lives in a house that reminds you of the house in PSYCHO. Even if it does not look at all similar, it feels much the same. Only brave kids, like tomboy Scout, dare get near the porch, much less on it.

Do you remember who plays Boo? It is Robert Duvall in his first movie part. He does not speak a word and is not even seen until the end, but his role in the film is crucial. His make-up is frightening. He looks like someone who has never seen the sun and who just stuck his finger in an electric socket. Duvall plays him with a beautiful, childlike innocence.

Elmer Bernstein's music for the film remind us of the magic and the simplicity of that time. The crickets outside will almost lull you to sleep, but knowing that danger or tragedy is just around the corner, you dare not blink an eye.

The Academy Award winning sets by Henry Bumstead and Alexander Golitzen perfectly capture the era. There were tire swings in the front yard, and front porches with rocking chairs or swings were de rigueur.

This was a time when young kids went about on their own. Yes, there were dangers back then, but the parents let them wander off by themselves. The kids in this picture have more in common with those of Tom Sawyer's era than today's.

Of the many small scenes, one of the best is Scout's first day at school. She is completely embarrassed at having to wear a dress. She thinks of herself as one of the boys and resents any proof to the contrary.

The second and arguably the main part of the story has to do with a trial. Atticus is a widower and a lawyer. He is not a rabble-rouser, but is never one to shirk when called to do his duty. One day, Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) asks him to take on a controversial case, and he agrees. A black farm hand, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), is accused of beating and raping a white girl, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox Paxton). Her father Bob (James Anderson) is the lead redneck, who wants to lynch Tom.

In a film bursting at the seams with great performances, Brock Peters's small role is acted with brilliance. As he speaks, the pain he has suffered comes through in his elocution and on his pained brow. He deserved an Academy Award for supporting actor. The acting by Paxton and Anderson is chillingly effective as well. Their performances are strong and believable without the natural tendency to overact their parts as villains.

The show has two central events. The trial is the main one. It is done with devastating force, but without the theatrics we have become to associate with trials. The secondary event happens near the end, but I can not describe it without giving it away so I will say no more.

Second only to the quality of the acting is the precise and lucid direction by Robert Mulligan and the literate and Academy Award winning script by Horton Foote, based on the book by Harper Lee. The entire show is a masterpiece crafted with loving care. A show that must be seen. And seen again.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD runs 2:09. It is not rated, but would probably be PG-13. There is no sex, nudity, or profanity. There are mature themes and some frightening scenes of people being chased and grabbed. The movie would probably be appropriate for kids nine or ten and up. I know it would have frightened the daylights out of my seven and a half year old had we let him watch it. I recommend the movie to you in the strongest possible terms, and I award the film a full ****.

**** = One of the top few films of this or any year. A must see film. *** = Excellent show. Look for it. ** = Average movie. Kind of enjoyable. * = Poor show. Don't waste your money. 0 = One of the worst films of this or any year. Totally unbearable.
REVIEW WRITTEN ON: December 28, 1996

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