Casting a critical eye over sacred films based on sacred texts is a pretty thankless task, especially when the story happens to be Harper Lee’s lauded and beloved To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Recently restored and rereleased on Blu-Ray to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, old believers can enjoy a return to trip to Maycomb to visit Scout, Jem and Atticus – whilst potential converts will either drink the Koolade or question its divinity.
The biggest problem with the film is that it has been imitated and robbed blind by so many coming of age tales and courtroom drama’s over the years and whilst Robert Mulligan’s direction and Elmer Bernstein’s score remain strong the power of the narrative has waned . Back in 1962 when the fight for Civil Rights was on the rise its understandable why the story struck a chord with teenagers in particular due to it’s simplistic handling of a complex issue. Looking at it through the eyes of an adult the withered arm defence is cheap and the whole Boo Radley affair under developed and unnecessary to the plot but fortunately the flaws are masked by some excellent performances and camera work.
Gregory Peck is perfectly cast as Atticus Finch. Slow, steady and dripping gravitas, he’s almost in the background for the first half of the film allowing the children to take the spotlight but during the courtrooms scenes the man is immense. Some of it is in his delivery but it’s his physical presence that makes him a man apart.
They don’t make them like Peck anymore, and watching him dominating the screen makes you mourn the decline of his breed. Mary Badham and Phillip Alford as Scout and Jem also give two of the finest performances by child actors in cinema history. Badham in particular is the personification of Harper Lee’s Scout and her nomination for best supporting actress was richly deserved.
As for Robert Mulligan’s direction, the highlight are undoubtedly two close-ups during the courtroom scene, especially one on Tom Robinson which was not only the perfect choice of shot but also showcased Brock Peters talent. You rarely see a prolonged close-up of an actor these days and Mulligan reminds us just how effective it can be. To Kill a Mockingbird is by no means as irreproachable as our memories would lead us to believe but it’s still a gripping yarn and well worth revisiting.