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On To Kill a Mockingbird

by Richard Armstrong


Richard Armstrong is an Associate Tutor affiliated to the British Film Institute. His book, Billy Wilder, American Film Realist, appeared from McFarland in 2000. He is currently writing Understanding Realism for the Bfi's Understanding the Moving Image series and Chocolate Biscuits and Italian Neo-Realism, a blend of reception aesthetics and personal memoir. He is a regular contributor to the websites Audience, Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and Talking Pictures, and contributes book reviews to the Times Higher Educational Supplement.

( This piece first appeared in Australian Screen Education, Issue 35, Winter 2004 http://www.metromagazine.com.au/metro/default.asp)


To Kill a Mockingbird

When Harper Lee first submitted her manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird to the publisher she was told that it seemed more like a series of short stories than a novel. Echoing her Alabama girlhood, Robert Mulligan ’ s 1962 film often feels like a series of moments and parts, incidents in search of a film. Only after watching it several times do the parts merge. Like the cigar box in the opening credits, it is a treasury of scenes, each evoking the specific atmospheres of childhood.

Notice how we see the objects in the box in close up: pocket watch, safety pin, marble, pennies, crayons, a mirror, a whistle, wooden dolls. Indeed, the credits sequence recalls the trick photographs of familiar objects shot from unfamiliar angles that once appeared in children ’ s comics and annuals. Seeing these objects in this way, we focus on their status as singular, rather unusual, things divorced from their purposes in the wider world. There is something obsessive about this sequence, as if we are examining clues in an investigation of events past but still somehow alive. As we shall see, this pregnant quality is significant to the moment the film appeared.

The de-familiarization of everyday objects is consonant with the film ’ s overall perspective. We see Scout ’ s experience through her six-year-old eyes so things, events and people do not come with the easy context and definition that they do for adults. Part of the film ’ s achievement is to make us look at the world again and to see it in a fresh light. It is an achievement that has concrete and far-reaching consequences for the characters and for us.

The Director

To Kill a Mockingbird was the most successful of a series of films produced by Alan J. Pakula and directed by Robert Mulligan. One of postwar America ’ s most underrated directors, Mulligan made his name with his first feature, Fear Strikes Out (1957), an intimate and disturbing account of a baseball player ’ s experience of mental illness made in collaboration with Pakula. In the 1960s Pakula and Mulligan made Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), and InsideDaisy Clover (1966), in which were combined sensitive performances, a feeling for environment, and an exploration of character psychology that has come to seem increasingly seductive. If critics have called these films ambiguous and fey, they remain the happy outcomes of unpretentious television camerawork and editing combined with the enhanced production values available to feature filmmakers. It is worth comparing Mulligan ’ s approach to performance and mise-en-scène in To Kill a Mockingbird with that of a Hollywood Tennessee Williams adaptation of the 1950s such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Suddenly Last Summer (1959). Russell Harlan ’ s unfussy cinematography and lighting bring a matter-of-fact quality to Mulligan ’ s film that seems thoroughly naturalistic. Another characteristic of the Pakula-Mulligan films is their feeling for music. Love with the Proper Stranger is set in the world of New York jazz clubs. Inside Daisy Clover explores the life of a musical starlet during the 1930s. Notice how in the credits sequence in To Kill a Mockingbird a child ’ s singing seems to invoke Elmer Bernstein ’ s memorable score, with its sure sense of American folk idiom.

The Actor

Scout ’ s father is the lawyer Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck. Peck made his name playing a series of decent men standing up for just causes, becoming an icon of integrity and high-mindedness for American audiences in the middle decades of the 20 th century. With his dark looks and authoritative voice, in Days of Glory (1944) Peck was the Russian partisan fighting the Nazi invaders. In Gentleman s Agreement (1947), he was the undercover journalist rooting out anti-semitism. For David Thomson Peck was a figurehead for a mass audience; “ a protagonist for middle American aspiration, pathfinder of the straight and narrow…He is Kennedy-like, preferring to act in crisis, and always cosmetically vindicated. ”

To defend the rights of Tom Robinson, the African-American accused of raping a white woman, whose trial forms the highpoint of the film, Atticus must stand up to the whole town. Peck ’ s contemplative mien and measured tones entirely suit the role. Hollywood films like to show a thoughtful intelligent man become a man of action. He may admonish Scout for fighting at school, and merely sets his jaw when the father of the raped woman spits in his face, but Atticus is prepared to pick up a rifle to shoot a rabid dog straying into the town. Clumsily placing his reading glasses down in the dust, he briefly becomes an expert marksman. It is a scene that would have reminded some in the audience of Peck ’ s backwoods hunter in The Yearling (1946).

Whilst the ornery Bob Ewell seems inarticulate, Atticus is articulate, coherent and assertive. During his cross-examination of Ewell ’ s daughter Mayella, she hysterically accuses Atticus of fancy speechifying and high falutin ’ attitudes, railing as much against what Atticus represents as what he actually says. James Anderson and Collin Wilcox Paxton ’ s performances depend on their ability to recall the backwoods temper of what Americans denigrate as “ white trash. ” In his summing up, Atticus speaks of the “ cruel poverty and ignorance ” which Mayella has had to endure all her life. The film is as much about class as it is about racial prejudice, a preoccupation resonating as much with the moment of its release as with the novel ’ s Depression setting.

The climactic courtroom scene is organized so that Scout and Jem see their father from the gallery where the black spectators sit. There they can look down on the proceedings as if they took place on a stage. It is difficult to resist the impression that the characters are avidly enjoying a movie at the local cinema, agog at the hero ’ s performance. If you think about it, a good many Hollywood films act as metaphors for the dynamics that are played out by the actors themselves. For example, in Cape Fear (1961), Gregory Peck played a lawyer in a small southern town whose family is threatened by a dangerous ex-convict whom he once defended. The 1991 remake cleverly subverted movie history by casting Peck as the ex-con ’ s shady lawyer! Elaborating star trajectories is not the most interesting thing Hollywood movies do. But the use of space in the courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird does tend to underline this movie ’ s appeal as what critics and industry insiders call a star vehicle. As if this were not enough, Atticus ’ neighbour Maudie Atkinson (Rosemary Murphy) could be talking abut Peck himself when she tells Jem: “ Some men in this world are born to do an unpleasant job for us. Your father ’ s one of them. ”

The Civil Rights Struggle

In his summing up, Atticus re-affirms that in the United States a man, no matter what his race, creed or status, is entitled to equal protection under the law. But To Kill a Mockingbird appeared at a particularly crucial moment in American history. In 1962 America was in the throes of the struggle for African-American civil rights.

Although slavery was declared unconstitutional after the American Civil War of 1861-1865, it would take another century before African-Americans could assume the rights that white Americans take for granted. The civil rights movement grew in strength and impetus throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Whilst lunch counters, restrooms (toilets) and other public facilities across the southern states were still segregated, in 1964 the Civil Rights Act declared discrimination based on race to be unconstitutional. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act gave African-Americans full suffrage. To Kill a Mockingbird appeared the same year as the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in all transportation facilities. Also in 1962, President Kennedy sent federal troops to the University of Mississippi to quell riots attendant upon its first black student registration. (Remember: education is a key issue in To Kill a Mockingbird).

Harper Lee ’ s novel was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Although based upon the infamous Scottsboro trial, in which nine African-American men were tried and convicted for raping a white woman in 1931, the book chimed with more recent events. With the newspapers full of the civil rights struggle and the television news pumping pictures into living rooms across America, it is easy to imagine what an impact the film would have had on the mass audience for which it was intended. With hindsight, it seems the ideal Oscar candidate. To Kill a Mockingbird was a high profile release based on a best-selling book dealing with controversial subject matter. It starred Hollywood ’ s paean of civic virtue. It was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Art Direction. Peck received Best Actor, screenwriter Horton Foote received the Best Adapted Screenplay statuette, and Alexander Golitzen, Henry Bumstead and Oliver Emert received the statuette for Best Art Direction.

Jean Louise Finch

To Kill a Mockingbird owes its moral centre to Scout and to Mary Badham who played her. Badham was nine when she was nominated for an Oscar. Pulling off the complex assignment of playing a little girl with all the spirit and energy of a tomboy yet all the imagination and sensitivity of the woman Scout will become, Badham brings a favourite Hollywood screenwriter ’ s model to life. Her performance is natural, assured and never cloying.

Sweet and caring, Scout is also crafty and rambunctious! At the heart of many scenes is her refusal to act like little girls are supposed to. Many roles for mature Hollywood actresses depend upon this apparent contradiction. Think of Holly Hunter in Broadcast News (1987) or Copycat (1995), or Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise (1991) or TheLong Kiss Goodnight (1996). Uncomfortable in the dress the Finches' maid Calpurnia makes Scout wear for her first day at school, Badham/Scout slouches and whines through the scene until deserting her breakfast and racing through the fly-screen door. Count up how many times you see Scout dashing along the streets of the town whilst adult extras sedately go about their business. At one point, she climbs inside an old truck tyre and Jem pushes it along the road, Scout rotating inside it. (The children constantly interact with their environment. How often do you see them swinging on gates or straddling railings? Do you remember taking your environment for granted as a child?)

When the lynch mob mass on the jail steps and threaten Atticus as he guards Tom before the trial, Scout races to be with him. As she charges through the mob we see the massed legs of the men as the camera barrels among them. As much of the film follows the children ’ s adventures, we often see things at waist height. Their opinions and prejudices unavailable to the children, the men of the town seem mysterious and dangerous. Until the courtroom scene, Tom Robinson ’ s story unfolds in scenes between adults, only becoming central to the film as she and Jem become curious about what ’ s going on at the courthouse and Scout feels the prejudice of other children. We see Mr Cunningham (Crahan Denton) through her eyes as she speaks to him on the steps of the jail. It is a powerful scene, like others in the film dependent upon alignment of the audience ’ s perspective with that of a child. Through a child ’ s eyes, adults often seem inscrutable. Whilst Badham/Scout addresses Mr Cunningham straight to camera, Denton/Cunningham looks away, his hat obscuring his face. The tension in the scene arises from our being unsure what he is thinking or what he will do next. At last he looks straight at Scout and responds to her concern for him and his family: “ Thank-you, young lady. ” By addressing Scout as “ young lady ” , he acknowledges both her true gender and her more genteel social status. Mr Cunningham ’ s words reinforce distinctions that the film is anxious to uphold.

Gender and Class

As the mature Jean Louise remembers her father saying: “ You never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them. ” When we first meet Mr Cunningham, Scout learns that the Cunninghams are poor and poverty makes a proud man ashamed. When we next see Cunningham, he heads a lynch mob of farmers who, like him, were hit hardest by the Depression. Harper Lee ’ s book was set during a period in American history when millions of men were out of work. Notice how in scenes with Cunningham Atticus stands on steps, raising him slightly above the other man. The actor placement suggests a difference in social standing between characters. Notice that the Finches always have plenty to eat. At one point, Scout brings Cunningham ’ s son back for dinner. Look how much of everything there is as cinematographer Russell Harlan dwells on Atticus ladling sweet potato and spinach, the children tuck into plates of meat, and Cunningham Jr. drowns his meat in gravy!

Social standing is central to the problems the film works through. It is significant that traditional gender characteristics are deeply involved with one another in Scout, since the film is most poignantly about defining masculinity. To Kill a Mockingbird appeared at a time when millions of Americans were experiencing the most affluent and comfortable lives that any Americans had ever experienced. The economy was booming and unemployment was low. There was a young, dynamic and charismatic President Kennedy in the White House and much talk in academic circles of the ‘ Affluent Society. ’ America had come a long way in thirty years. For millions of Americans in the rich white suburbs of the 1960s this was how things should be and their values were the right values. The 1960s had seen the emergence of a college-educated white-collar class of lawyers, teachers and corporation executives whose trim grey suits and Kennedy crew cuts earned them the epithet ‘ Corporation Man ’ . Atticus does not belong to this generation, so does not conform to this image. But the film shows him as an educated man who can also act tough when necessary, answering whatever misgivings around the virility of the Corporation Man may have persisted in this traditionally masculine society.

Enjoying the highest standard of education provision in its history, in America in the 1960s language and literature were prized among the dominant middle class which comprised most of this film ’ s audience. To Kill a Mockingbird compares Scout ’ s environment, full of books and knowledge, with that of the Ewells and the Cunninghams in which more pressing needs have taken precedence. According to Jem, Scout had been reading “ since she was born. ” Whilst the film illustrates Atticus and Scout ’ s relatively affluent family life, we must infer from the court proceedings that Ewell sexually abuses Mayella and beats her when he is drunk. If Mayella is a gibbering idiot, Scout is a well-adjusted little girl, vindicating the liberal democratic ideal of a sensible diet, lots of affection, and a rounded education. One suspects that nobody ever called Mayella “ young lady. ”

Most of To Kill a Mockingbird is shot in brightly-lit stable compositions that suggest an objective ‘ normal ’ environment. But in certain scenes, the film mobilizes conventions that suggest more menacing characteristics. When Jem makes his way onto the porch of the old Radley place, an apparently dilapidated shack often accompanied by ‘ spooky ’ music, Boo ’ s shadow passes over him in spine-chilling fashion. When Bob Ewell appears out of the gloom at the Robinsons, demented and clawing at the car window, lighting and performance generate a Gothic atmosphere. When the children are attacked in the woods by a groaning figure, his spindly hand appears like a claw before Scout ’ s petrified stare. (Indeed, this scene recalls the opening scene of Charles Dickens ’ Great Expectations ). The style and execution of these scenes evokes horror movies such as Frankenstein (1931). In that film, a little girl is frightened by Frankenstein ’ s Monster near a lake. What horror movies seek to do is to explore issues that are too controversial to be discussed in more mainstream genres such as melodrama, crime or soap operas. Horror movies use ghastly or monstrous images or effects as metaphors for real but ‘ difficult ’ problems such as rape, incest or homosexuality. In To Kill a Mockingbird Ewell ’ s excessive behaviour with his daughter is channelled into his Gothic representation. To the film ’ s middle class family audience, Ewell becomes a monster.

Because horrible gossip has surrounded the figure of Boo Radley, this gentle backward man has also become demonized. Boo ’ s ‘ awful ’ reputation is carefully built up until the climactic moment when we actually see this quiet figure in Jem ’ s room. The townsfolk don ’ t understand so they have deployed metaphors that the film echoes with horror movie conventions. Like Cunningham, Bob Ewell is poor and feels less of a man for it. In an era when the Kennedy administration committed itself to conquering all social ills, Cunningham, Ewell and Boo Radley are seen as the victims of “ cruel poverty and ignorance. ”

To kill a myth…

Big mainstream releases like To Kill a Mockingbird tend to embody easily understood and assimilated attitudes. After all, expensive to produce, they must appeal to a wide range of people if they are to turn a profit. Seeing the film from an early-21 st century perspective, what do you think of a white lawyer defending an African-American victim of racial hatred whilst keeping an African-American maid? How would an audience in America in 1962 have read this? How do you think contemporary African-Americans would have responded to that scene in which black people in the gallery rise in tribute to Gregory Peck ’ s white lawyer defending their rights? How should we deal with the prospect of a little girl befriending a grown man with learning difficulties? Such questions invite us to ask why the film was made as it was and whether we have changed. Finally, how would you reconcile Atticus ’ philosophy with what you would see as you stepped out of an afternoon showing of To Kill a Mockingbird in a Mississippi picture theatre in 1962?


To Kill a Mockingbird

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