Seldom has a Hollywood film become so indelibly identified with its leading actor. Director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula (later a fine director in his own right) may have had honourable careers, but To Kill a Mockingbird is, from start to finish, remembered for Gregory Peck's towering, admirable performance as Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch, assigned to defend a black man accused of rape in the small town he's lived all his life in. Harper Lee's epoch-making 1960 novel, where the trial and all it revealed about class and racism in the American South of 1932 were framed through the eyes of Finch's six-year-old, tomboyish daughter Scout (played in the film by newcomer Mary Badham), was a call to the better angels of American values. Its resonance was amplified by this careful, modest adaptation and Mr. Peck's dignified portrait of Finch as a paragon of decency, compassion and justice, a man at peace with himself, a role model aware he is fighting a losing battle with the certainty a victory may be waiting further down the road.

     While screenwriter and playwright Horton Foote's adaptation necessarily leaves out most of the local colour that so bewitches the reader, focussing on the trial and on the mystery surrounding recluse neighbour Boo Radley (a brief, mute performance by then-beginner Robert Duvall), Mr. Mulligan's film is a model of sobriety and economy. This is a film that makes do with very little (an entirely studio-bound production and a small cast of character actors), aware that it's the story itself that carries it, and focusing all its energies in putting it on screen in a respectful manner. That may make it (and indeed does make it) a bit too solemn for its own good, but contextualisation is required to understand that both the book and the film came out at the height of the civil rights era, so the importance of the subject could not be escaped and production would itself have been a tricky balancing act.

     The key to the film, however, is the same one that worked for the book: the strength and humanity of the characters, and the power of the performances, especially that of Mr. Peck, who won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. It was to become his signature performance, even though it is unfair to dismiss all the careful work being done around him, from the chirpy performances from inexperienced newcomers Phillip Alford and Ms. Badham to the exquisitely self-effacing handling from Mr. Mulligan. Too often remembered outside the US (where the cultural importance of both book and film remains undimmed) as a prestige problem picture typical of early post-studio Hollywood, in its austere, functional economy To Kill a Mockingbird remains a surprisingly modern, gripping drama.

Gregory Peck; John Megna, Frank Overton, Rosemary Murphy, Ruth White, Brock Peters, Estelle Evans, Paul Fix, Collin Wilcox, James Anderson, Alice Ghostley, Robert Duvall, William Windom, Crahan Denton, Richard Hale; Mary Badham, Phillip Alford.
     Director, Robert Mulligan; screenplay, Horton Foote, from the novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird; cinematography, Russell Harlan (b&w); music, Elmer Bernstein; art director, Henry Bumstead; costume designers, Rosemary Odell, Seth Banks; editor, Aaron Stell; producer, Alan J. Pakula (Pakula-Mulligan Productions, Brentwood Productions), USA, 1962, 128 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, December 26th 2011. 


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