Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
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To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) is a much-loved, critically-acclaimed, classic trial film. It exhibits a dramatic tour-de-force of acting, a portrayal of childhood innocence (told from a matured adult understanding), and a progressive, enlightened 60s message about racial prejudice, violence, moral tolerance and dignified courage.

The Academy Award winning screenplay was faithfully adapted by screenwriter Horton Foote from the 1960 novel of the same name by Harper Lee - who had written a semi-autobiographical account of her small-town Southern life (Monroeville, Alabama), her widower father/attorney Amasa Lee, and its setting of racial unrest. [Note: This was Lee's first and sole novel - and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960.] The poor Southern town of deteriorating homes was authentically re-created on a Universal Studios' set. Released in the early 60s, the timely film reflected the state of deep racial problems and social injustice that existed in the South. One of its posters described the basic issue:

The rare film story of a father who must expose his children to a small town's outraged passions...and can only protect them with his love.

The film begins by portraying the innocence and world of play of a tomboyish six year-old girl named Scout (Mary Badham) and her ten year-old brother Jem (Phillip Alford), and their perceptions of their widower attorney father Atticus (Gregory Peck). They also fantasize about a 'boogeyman' recluse who inhabits a mysterious house in their neighborhood. They are abruptly brought out of their insulated and carefree world by their father's unpopular but courageous defense of a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) falsely accused of raping a Southern white woman. Although racism dooms the accused man, a prejudiced adult vengefully attacks the children on a dark night - they are unexpectedly delivered from real harm in the film's climax by the reclusive neighbor, "Boo" Radley.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture (producer Alan J. Pakula lost to the epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962)), Best Director (Robert Mulligan), Best Supporting Actress (Mary Badham, sister of director John Badham, known for Saturday Night Fever (1977), Stakeout (1987), and other films), Best B/W Cinematography (Russell Harlan), and Best Music Score - Substantially Original (an evocative score by Elmer Bernstein). It was honored with three awards - Gregory Peck won a well-deserved Best Actor Award (his first Oscar win and fifth Oscar nomination) for his solid performance as a courageous Alabama lawyer, Horton Foote won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar (Foote won a second Oscar for Tender Mercies (1983)), and the team of Art Directors/Set Decorators also received the top honor. [Note: Although Gregory Peck's inspirational performance as Atticus Finch turned out to be a perfect highlight to his long career, Rock Hudson was actually the studio's first choice for the role.]

Relationships formed during filming would last for the remainder of Gregory Peck's life -- he received the pocketwatch of Harper Lee's father; he became the surrogate father to Mary Badham; and Brock Peters delivered Peck's eulogy after his death in June of 2003.

Plot Synopsis

The black-and-white film opens with a wonderfully-fashioned credit sequence - beginning with an overhead point-of-view shot of a young girl opening and looking into a old cigar box of collected remembrances, valued treasures and trinkets, including:

  • crayons (new and used)
  • a mechanical pencil
  • two carved soap doll figurines - one male and one female
  • an old broken pocket watch
  • a skeleton key
  • a broken pocket knife
  • a spelling medal
  • a few marbles
  • jacks
  • an Indian head and Lincoln head penny
  • a chalk holder
  • and other minor objects

As she sings, hums and giggles to herself, she colors over lined paper with a round crayon, revealing the title of the film in white letters. The camera circles and tracks slowly from left to right along various collections of carefully-arranged objects in magnified close-up, while nostalgic music plays (Elmer Bernstein's lyrical score):

  • the broken pocket watch on a chain
  • a large safety pin and a chain
  • Indian head and Lincoln head pennies
  • a mechanical pencil
  • a translucent marble
  • a jack
  • a black and white striped marble that rolls and collides with a black marble
  • a beaten-up crayon
  • a disembodied pen point
  • another clear marble
  • a button
  • the broken pocket watch on a chain (again)
  • a harmonica
  • another multi-colored marble
  • a silver whistle

After drawing a simple, stick-figured 'mocking-bird', the girl shades in the winged creature and then tears the paper through the bird, melodramatically foreshadowing the racial tensions and divisions that will tear apart the innocence of the town and forever alter the child's fragile memories.

The camera descends on a sleepy view of a small, languid town, Maycomb, Alabama, in the early 1930s at the height of the Depression. The story is poignantly and sentimentally told from the eyes of a six year old tom-boy - Jean Louise "Scout" Finch (9 year-old Mary Badham in her film debut). [Her character represents the novel's author. Finch was the middle name of Harper Lee's father. Also, a mockingbird and a Finch are both songbirds.] Uncredited Kim Stanley narrates the film in voice-over as an adult version of Scout. She intelligently recalls where she grew up, in a small Southern town, where "the day was 24 hours long, but it seemed longer":

Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon after their three o'clock naps. And by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostin's of sweat and sweet talcum. The day was 24 hours long, but it seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go and nothin' to buy...and no money to buy it with. Although Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothin' to fear but fear itself...That summer, I was six years old.

Early one morning, one of the poor farmers from the countryside hit hard by the Depression, Walter Cunningham (Crahan Denton) drives through town in a horse-drawn wagon. Ill at ease and embarrassed, he delivers a crokersack full of hickory nuts to the clapboard Finch residence as part of his entailment for legal work. The previous week, he had brought "delicious" collards as payment. Scout, dressed in blue jeans, is swinging on a rope by the side of her house, and then leaning on a tire swing (hung on another rope). Her father is a widower defense lawyer, spectacled Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), who is struggling to raise his two children - "Scout" and ten-year-old son Jem (13 year-old Phillip Alford in his film debut) - after his wife died four years earlier. Scout inquires about their financial status compared to that of the Cunninghams:

Scout: Is he poor?
Atticus: Yes.
Scout: Are we poor?
Atticus: We are indeed.
Scout: Are we as poor as the Cunninghams?
Atticus: No, not exactly. The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers. The crash hit them the hardest.

A warm-hearted neighbor woman, Miss Maudie Atkinson (Rosemary Murphy), who is keenly interested in Atticus and his children, is working in her garden across the street. When Jem complains to her that his father "is too old for anything," she stoutly defends him:

He can do plenty of things...He can make somebody's will so airtight you can't break it. You count your blessings and stop complaining, both of you. Thank your stars he has the sense to act his age.

As Jem looks down from his treehouse into Miss Stephanie Crawford's (Alice Ghostley) collard patch next door, he spots a crouching boy sitting among the plants. They soon become friends with Charles Baker "Dill" Harris (John Megna) who is visiting his Aunt for two weeks in the summertime from Meridian, Mississippi. Dill is a peculiar, eccentric boy wise beyond his years who boasts he's "goin' on seven" and "I'm little but I'm old." [His character was based upon Harper Lee's childhood friend and neighbor, Pulitzer prize-winning author Truman Capote.]

The imaginative children expect to enjoy their summer days in a tree-house, playing games, swinging on a rubber tire, and fantasizing about a neighboring house that harbors the town's pariah. They are intrigued by the creaky old wooden place, believing the frightful tale that it is occupied by a hateful man named Mr. Radley (Richard Hale) and his mentally-crazed, terrifying son - an elusive, mysterious recluse named Arthur "Boo" Radley (Robert Duvall in a stunning film debut). Jem sees Mr. Radley walk by and quiets his pals, and then they run over and stare at the Radley house and yard:

Jem: There goes the meanest man that ever took a breath of life.
Dill: Why is he the meanest man?
Jem: Well, for one thing, he has a boy named Boo that he keeps chained to a bed in the house over yonder...See, he lives over there. Boo only comes out at night when you're asleep and it's pitch-dark. When you wake up at night, you can hear him. Once I heard him scratchin' on our screen door, but he was gone by the time Atticus got there.
Dill: (intrigued) I wonder what he does in there? I wonder what he looks like?
Jem: Well, judgin' from his tracks, he's about six and a half feet tall. He eats raw squirrels and all the cats he can catch. There's a long, jagged scar that runs all the way across his face. His teeth are yella and rotten. His eyes are popped. And he drools most of the time.

Dill's spinsterish Aunt Stephanie Crawford fills the children's myth-making minds with even more horrifying images of the fearsome Boo Radley - who hasn't been seen since his family locked him up years earlier:

There's a maniac lives there and he's dangerous...I was standing in my yard one day when his Mama come out yelling, 'He's killin' us all.' Turned out that Boo was sitting in the living room cutting up the paper for his scrapbook, and when his daddy come by, he reached over with his scissors, stabbed him in his leg, pulled them out, and went right on cutting the paper. They wanted to send him to an asylum, but his daddy said no Radley was going to any asylum. So they locked him up in the basement of the courthouse till he nearly died of the damp, and his daddy brought him back home. There he is to this day, sittin' over there with his scissors...Lord knows what he's doin' or thinkin'.

When the town clock strikes five, Jem and Scout run down the street to meet Atticus. On the way to town, Jem spins another cautionary tale about another neighbor - Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, a peculiar, elderly woman who sits on her porch in a wheelchair and is cared for by a black woman named Jessie:

Listen, no matter what she says to you, don't answer her back. There's a Confederate pistol in her lap under her shawl and she'll kill you quick as look at you. Come on.

Although Scout acts slightly disrespectful toward the woman as she passes, a few moments later her father (on his return from town) calms things by taking an interest in Mrs. Dubose's beautiful flowers. Jem whispers to Scout that he understands how his father practices courteous diplomacy:

He gets her interested in something nice, so she forgets to be mean.

Later that evening, the camera intrudes through a gauzy curtain covering the Finch window into an intimate bedtime scene in Scout's bedroom, where she finishes reading a passage outloud to her father from Robinson Crusoe. Boo Radley is still on her mind and she asks Atticus about him, and then inquires about Atticus' watch - economically revealing emotional feelings about the missing Mrs. Finch:

Scout: Atticus, do you think Boo Radley ever really comes and looks in my window at night? Jem says he does. This afternoon when we were over by their house...
Atticus (interrupting and admonishing): Scout. I told you and Jem to leave those poor people alone. I want you to stay away from their house and stop tormentin' them.
Scout: Yes, sir.
Atticus (after checking his pocket watch): Well, I think that's all the reading for tonight, honey. It's gettin' late.
Scout: What time is it?
Atticus: Eight-thirty.
Scout: May I see your watch? (She delights once more in reading the inscription in the watch.) 'To Atticus, My Beloved Husband.' Atticus, Jem says this watch is gonna belong to him some day.
Atticus: That's right.
Scout: Why?
Atticus: Well, customary for the boy to have his father's watch.
Scout: What are you gonna give me?
Atticus: Well, I don't know that I have much else of value that belongs to me. But there's a pearl necklace - and there's a ring that belonged to your mother. And I've put them away and they're to be yours. (Scout stretches out her arms and smiles. He kisses and hugs her goodnight).

Sitting motionless and silent on the porch swing after both his children have gone to bed, Atticus overhears his children's conversation about the mother they can barely remember or picture in their minds. In the sensitively-executed scene, the younger Scout asks her older brother (off-camera) about their late mother who died when she was too young to remember:

Scout: How old was I when Mama died?
Jem: Two.
Scout: How old were you?
Jem: Six.
Scout: Old as I am now.
Jem: Uh huh.
Scout: Was Mama pretty?
Jem: Uh, huh.
Scout: Was Mama nice?
Jem: Uh, huh.
Scout: Did you love her?
Jem: Yes.
Scout: Did I love her?
Jem: Yes.
Scout: Do you miss her?
Jem: Uh, huh.

They are trying to come to terms with the ambiguities and uncertainties of their lives, and justice (and injustice) in the world. At six years of age, Scout's innocent reflections help her to contemplate and understand her circumstances.

Seventy-five year old local judge, Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) drops by and informs Atticus that the grand jury will charge accused black man Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) the following day. Although the children and his practice take much of his time, the deeply-principled man reflects thoughtfully and then agrees to "take the case", defend the accused man, and represent him in the court.

The next morning, Dill dares Jem (with a bet of a Grey Ghost against two Tom Swifts) to go "farther than Boo Radley's gate." Even though Jem asserts: "I ain't scared. I go past Boo Radley's house nearly every day of my life," he doesn't take the challenge as they go out into the street to play. Scout is placed in a rubber tire, given a big shove, and is accidentally rolled into the Radley's front yard. She is stunned and dizzy when the tire hits the steps of the Radley's front porch. To assist his frozen-with-fear, helpless sister, Jem takes off toward her and drags her away from danger. And then he decides to prove he's not scared and take Dill's bet. He runs up the steps to the front door, touches it, comes running down, and then races out of the yard and back home yelling: "Run for your life, Scout. Come on, Dill." When they are out of danger, they are exhausted and Jem boasts: "Now who's a coward? You tell them about this back in Meridian County, Mr. Dill Harris."

Respectful of his pal, Dill suggests that they venture downtown where there are more "instruments of torture" to experience in the town's courthouse:

Let's go down to the courthouse and see the room that they locked Boo up in. My aunt says it's bat-infested, and he nearly died from the mildew. Come on. I bet they got chains and instruments of torture down there.

Paralleling the imaginative dreamworld of the children is another contradictory and volatile adult world of social issues. Scout and Jem reluctantly follow Dill into the courthouse hall and up to the second floor to find Atticus. [The interior of the courtroom in the film is an almost-identical copy of the Monroe County Courthouse that existed in author Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.]

With their assistance by making a "saddle" with their arms, Dill is hoisted up to peer in the glass window high in the tall courtroom doors. He vividly describes the scene of supposed justice during the grand jury hearing for Tom Robinson, from his own boy-hood point of view:

Not much is happening. The judge looks like he's asleep. I see your daddy and a colored man. The colored man looks to me like he's crying. I wonder what he's done to cry about?...There's a whole lot of men sitting together on one side and one man is pointing at the colored man and yelling. They're taking the colored man away.

Atticus, dressed in a three-piece white linen suit, is appalled that his children are there and sends them back home immediately. The respected, incorruptible Atticus quickly becomes embroiled in a hostile world of hatred and prejudice. Poor 'white trash' redneck Robert E. Lee (Bob) Ewell (James Anderson), the father of the alleged rape victim Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), blocks Atticus' way and questions his decision to take the case and vigorously defend a black man:

I'm real sorry they picked you to defend that nigger that raped my Mayella. I don't know why I didn't kill him myself instead of goin' to the sheriff. That would have saved you and the sheriff and the taxpayers lots of trouble...

Ewell even threatens Atticus' children: "What kind of a man are you? You got chillun of your own."

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