One of the all-time great achievements in 20th century literature is also a defining masterpiece of the American cinema. All works of art are meant to inspire. Too few in popular entertainment these days do and even fewer still have that ability to remain fresh and relevant in both their warmth and sincerity some fifty years after they first made their debut. Robert Mulligan's lyrical production of To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) retains its former glory as a ghost flower of bygone film making perennially renewed by the im-‘Peck’-able performance of its star. To see it once is to remember it forever. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is more than a rock steady exemplar of the graceful man in all his waning flourish. It is a finely wrought portrait of humanity at its finest. Horton Foote's screenplay exhibits a timeless appeal that is understated and faithful to Harper Lee’s poetic novel, but it is Peck who makes the printed word live on in our hearts. If movies are meant to reflect our most intimate hopes and desires for the human race, then To Kill A Mockingbird retains in its ability to ask ourselves to strive to be better people.
Peck’s undaunted lawyer is bound by duty to the law. Yet he is determined by an intuitive code of ethics that dictates every fiber of his conscience, remaining the moral compass of the story. The character of Atticus Finch will forever be synonymous with the actor’s name, perhaps because the man and his filmic alter ego parallel in perpetuity that persona of ‘integrity personified’. There is a greatness to author Harper Lee's southern attorney, heroic in all his understated eloquence, magnificently given life through Peck's equally magnanimous characterization. His Atticus Finch is the human race's greatest champion and its most humble servant.
From its unconventional main title sequence, celebrating the lost recesses of a child’s imagination, to the quiet rectitude with which Peck transforms a seemingly soft spoken gentleman into the very pillar of masculine veracity, there is much to admire throughout To Kill A Mockingbird. Henry Bumstead's superb production design and Russell Harlan's evocative cinematography capture the essence and flavor of the decaying south. Elmer Bernstein's score embarks as the seemingly random notes of a child's meandering hum, miraculously transformed into the epitome a truly memorable American life.
Based on the novel my Harper Lee, the film tells the story of a small town lawyer, Atticus Finch (Peck) and his unassuming determination to exonerate black man, Tom Robinson (Brook Peters) from the false accusation of raping a white farm girl, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox). The girl's racist father, Bob (James Anderson) is exploiting the case to mask his own abuse of his daughter. The story diverges from this public scandal into an intimate snapshot of propriety and hypocrisies. In this secondary narrative that parallels the central themes of tolerance and equality, Atticus’ children Jem (Philip Alfort) and Jean Louise 'Scout' (Mary Badham) share an unjustifiable fear and mistrust of mentally challenged neighborhood boy, Arthur 'Boo' Radley (Robert Duvall).
Both stories are seen entirely through the children’s eyes; their curiosities peaked at discovering tiny presents left for them inside a hollow tree by Boo, their hearts and minds forever changed by Atticus' involvement in this controversial case that will ultimately stir a newfound admiration and respect for their father. Eventually Scout’s prejudice toward Boo gives way to kindly understanding – a lesson learned the hard way after both she and Jem are rescued by Boo from imminent harm.
The very best American movies all possess a great affinity for solid story telling coupled with outstanding performances. But To Kill A Mockingbird is more than just a good story or a great performance. It is perhaps the single most unvarnished and honest social critique to effectively capture a moment in time, exemplifying the impact that strength true character can have on an entire town. On every level then, To Kill A Mockingbird is a class act. Small wonder that in a recent AFI poll of screen heroes Peck's Atticus Finch continues to top out at #1. Throughout filming, Gregory Peck referred to a pocket watch to keep his character on time. The watch was a studio prop. However, after Harper Lee saw the rough cut of the film she gave Peck a time piece belonging to her late father on which she had based the character of Atticus Finch, explaining to the actor that his performance so completely reminded her of him that at some point she could almost believe he was her father. As an actor, Peck could have been paid no finer a compliment.
Most fitting, Universal Home Video has chosen a Blu-ray release of To Kill A Mockingbird to kick off its 100th anniversary in film making. However, I am not entirely certain the results are what I expected to see. True enough, this transfer exhibits a pristine B&W rendering with none of the digitized shortcomings of previously issued DVDs. Edge enhancement is gone. So is pixelization. But the real concern here is film grain. Where is it? The image appears to have been excessively scrubbed. In a restoration featurette included on this disc the experts explain that the pans and zooms in the film were done optically - meaning not in camera but in the actual editing of the film (blowing up the image), resulting in an obvious and occasionally distracting increase of film grain. The restorationists have therefore attempted to minimize the grain to provide us with a smooth rendering on Blu-ray. But when is smooth, too smooth?
To Kill A Mockingbird has always looked a tad soft to me on home video and this Blu-ray is no exception. Fine details are present, but not nearly as defined as I expected them to be. Contrast levels are solid and the gray scale looks marvelous. As I say, I'm still not entirely certain this is the best the film might have looked on Blu-ray. I suspect too much DNR has resulted in a more waxen than necessary visual characteristic. The new DTS audio really adds kick to Elmer Bernstein's score. Dialogue continues to sound strident and thin, but hey - this is a re-purposing of a vintage mono track. Due diligence has been paid in preserving it and that's about all that can be expected. So, good news here.
Not so much good news however in the way all of the many extra features have been handled. Virtually all are in 480i and look generally terrible. The worst of the lot is Fearful Symmetry - the glowing and exceptionally comprehensive documentary on the making of the film. Shot in an aspect ratio of 1:85:1, this exceptional piece has not even been enhanced for widescreen TVs - for shame! Extras also include Gregory Peck’s rather lackluster Oscar acceptance speech. Peck redeems himself some thirty years later giving a superb oration at the AFI’s Life Time Achievement Award ceremony that unequivocally proves why he’s a true rarity in Hollywood; a gentleman first and actor second.
Next up is Cecilia Peck’s loving (if slightly rambling) tribute to her late father, given during an honorary Academy dinner. Then there is Mary Badham’s glowing and respectful reminiscence of working with Peck on the film. Finally, we get 'Conversations with Gregory Peck' - a thorough and comprehensive tribute to the lecture series Peck gave in the late 1980s, chocked full of memorable appearances and backstage interviews.
I would have really liked to highly recommended this disc because I love the film so much. And truly, this new 1080p transfer easily bests anything we've seen on home video before. But Universal's lack of attention to preserving the extras in their best possible presentation is, frankly, inexcusable. I've grown somewhat sullen over the years about studios simply slapping out extra features just to say that they have them without giving them their proper due. Parting thoughts: To Kill A Mockingbird is being released in two competing editions: one a disc only offering, the other in booklet form. Both are identical in their disc content. Personally, I can't see why anyone would spend eleven dollars more for a 44 page booklet that is basically a cut and paste job of photos and press junket materials.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5 (for feature) 1 (for extras)