'To Kill a Mockingbird': THR's 1962 Review

Léo L. Fuchs/Universal Pictures/Photofest
'To Kill a Mockingbird'
'To Kill A Mockingbird' is a product of American realism, and it is a rare and worthy treasure.

"Pakula-Mulligan pic in line for honors."

On Dec. 11, 1962, The Hollywood Reporter appraised the film adaptation of Harper Lee's landmark novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The film, starring Gregory Peck, went on to claim eight nominations at the 35th Academy Awards and three wins. The review is below:

One of the finest pictures of this or any other year, To Kill A Mockingbird is certain also to be one of the best-loved. Produced with care by Alan J. Pakula and directed with true brilliance by Robert Mulligan, the Universal picture is a genuine experience, so penetrating and pervasive it lingers long after the last image has faded. There is no question it will be one of the year’s most honored films. Funny, sad, exalting in its theme, To Kill A Mockingbird will require shrewd presentation, but given this, could be a solid commercial hit as well. It certainly deserves to be.

There are many “best-sellers,” but there are few that anyone cares to remember. Harper Lee’s novel, on which this film is based, created an extraordinary loyalty and personal championship among its readers. Horton Foote’s screenplay captures all the charm, all the pathos, all the definitive characterizations, all the humor, and especially the aching grandeur of simple people — children and adults — facing the perplexities of life and meeting its challenges.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a memory of childhood, a creation of a child’s world, of children viewing the adult world and their judgment on it. It is set in a slow-moving Alabama town of a generation ago. The principals are a respected attorney, Gregory Peck, and his two motherless children, played by Mary Badham and Phillip Alford. It begins with the children’s world, its manufactured values and its made-up horrors and delightful titillations. It opens into the real world, the adult world, with its genuine and terrifying realities. Make-believe can be fled. Reality must be faced. The children begin to grow up. The dream of life is shattered by life as it is. 

The framework of this theme is a trial to which Peck is assigned by the court. He is defense lawyer for a Negro accused of raping a white woman. His defense is not emotional. It is based on the law, its dignity and its importance. He fails. The man is convicted and is killed attempting to escape.

While this central incident dominates the story, it does not occupy the greatest time, and is actually only a smallish part of the whole story. There is a mentally-retarded adult who lives next door to the family, at first an object of unknowing childish teasing, later the realization of tenderness and love. There are scenes that put so much of life in sudden perspective. The children casually dispersing a lynch mob by their personalizing the members of the mob is one. The first day at school is another. The Negroes in the courtroom rising as Peck leaves, dejected, ostensibly, defeated, having lost his case but having asserted his dignity and the dignity of all men. To Kill A Mockingbird is not an attack on the South for its failure to meet its problems. It is a Southern exposure of the tragedy these unresolved problems visit on all involved.

Mulligan’s direction cannot be neglected. Peck gives probably the finest performance of his career, understated, casual, effective. The two children are nothing short of phenomenal. Untrained, they respond to direction like bright young animals, alert, sensitive, plastic. With the difference that they are human beings in whom intelligence glows and is fanned to flame by their extraordinary environment. Russell Harlan’s low-key camera work must also be commended for catching these mercurial beings in their quick-silver emotional flittings.

The rest of the cast is also fine, playing with a realism that stimulates life without distorting it. John Megna, another wonderful child; Brock Peters, the stolid, terror-stricken defendant; Estelle Evans, the housekeeper-mother to the children; Frank Overton, Rosemary Murphy, Ruth White, Paul Fix, James Anderson, and especially Collin Wilcox, as the accuser of Peck’s client, are among the vital assets of the cast. Others of value include Alice Ghostley, Robert Duval, William Windom, Crahan Denton, Richard Hale and Kim Hamilton.

Elmer Bernstein’s gentle score, using the piano for nostalgic effect, is superb, letting the action speak, only underlining with tangent emotion. Art directors Alexander Golitzen and Henry Bumstead have literally re-created the southern town of the early 30’s, assisted in detail by set decorator Oliver Emert. Aaron Stell’s editing, carrying out the fluid design of director and cameraman, moves forward without apparent pace but inexorably. Sound, by Waldon O. Watson and Corson Jowett, is generally good, but the children are hard to understand in the early scenes. This may be part of the general plan, however, since it is a technical problem that the sound men could easily remedy.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a product of American realism, and it is a rare and worthy treasure.— James Powers

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