Saturday, May 2, 2015

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: Blu-ray (Universal 1962) Universal Home Video

Under director, Robert Mulligan’s guidance, one of the all-time literary achievements also became a defining masterpiece in 20th century American cinema. When it was published in the fall of 1961, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was an immediate winner with audiences, a Reader’s Digest and Book Club selection. That it also won Lee the coveted Pulitzer for literature was something of a surprise – if not to her legions of fans, than certainly the authoress, who claimed to be the last to be informed about the novel’s popularity. To Kill A Mockingbird has since gone on to become a seminal chapter of childhood self-discovery and an important work dealing with racial prejudice in the Deep South.  In more recent times, however, the movie has been criticized as something of a falsehood, “not as a record of how things are - or were - but of how we once liked to think of them”, preserving the “hopes and sentiments (of) a more naïve America” with a benevolent “white liberal” as our hero. With due deference to the late Roger Ebert, from whose movie review these aforementioned quotes have been gleaned, To Kill A Mockingbird remains, at least in my not so humble estimation, a peerless example of the character-driven drama, preserving the burgeoning wonderment of a child’s perspective, precisely because Mulligan and his cinematographer, Russell Harlan know where to place their camera.  
The very best American movies all possess a singular affinity for solid storytelling coupled with outstanding performances. But To Kill A Mockingbird is more than just a good story with great performances. It is, perhaps, the single most unvarnished social critique of a particular moment and problem in American history; racial prejudice and inequality more obviously transparent throughout the 1930’s (the time period in which our story is set) resurgent in the 1960’s call for action and civil rights. On every level, To Kill A Mockingbird is a class act; a magical experience, different from the novel, perhaps, but equally as engaging and thought-provoking. The movie pivots on Gregory Peck’s star performance, a variation on his already well-ensconced presence as Hollywood’s most congenial voice of integrity.
Peck’s built-in persona as a noble man is the ideal complement to the movie’s Atticus Finch and vice versa. When Peck speaks, he shares in the command all great orators – and actors, for that matter – ought to possess, able to effortlessly shift from majestic platitudes to heartfelt intimacy as though every word of scripted dialogue were part of his natural thought process, spontaneously slipped into his brain. Peck’s Atticus Finch is more than a rock steady exemplar of the graceful man in full flourish. It is a finely wrought portrait of humanity at its finest. Horton Foote's screenplay preserves the understated lyricism from Lee’s novel. But it is Peck who makes the printed words leap from the pages to live on in our hearts. Atticus’ undaunted morality is juxtaposed with the precepts of his profession: a lawyer bound by the letter of the law. Yet, he is dictated by a more altruistic code of ethics; the moral compass of our story.
Atticus Finch will likely forever be synonymous with Gregory Peck’s good name, perhaps because the parallels between the character of this man and the character he portrays on the screen parallel an unimpeachable persona as ‘integrity personified’. There is a hidden greatness to author, Harper Lee's southern attorney, an understated heroic eloquence magnified by Peck's magnanimous characterization. At once, his Atticus Finch is humanity’s greatest champion and most humble servant. Widower, father, attorney and moralist; Atticus manages to draw out a reluctant dignity from this stubborn, small-minded enclave of Southern bigots who would just as easily see an innocent man swing from a tree to preserve their antique notions of gallantry. The subject of ‘white America’s’ blindsided defense is an unworthy; the bucolic tartlet, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox) who obviously lusted after her father’s hired man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), became sexually aroused, then frustrated when her advances were met with benign resistance, and thereafter, enough hatred to accuse him of the despicable act of rape.
All works of art are meant to inspire. Too few in popular entertainment these days do and even fewer still possess the wherewithal to remain fresh and relevant fifty plus years after their debut. To Kill A Mockingbird retains its former glory; largely as a ghost flower from another bygone character-centric epoch in American film making, and primarily because of its im-‘Peck’-able star performance. To see it once is to remember it forever. From its unconventional main title sequence, celebrating the lost recesses of a child’s imagination, with a superb score by Elmer Bernstein, to the quiet rectitude with which Peck transforms his seemingly soft spoken gentleman into a towering pillar of intellectual veracity, there is much to admire. Henry Bumstead's superb production design and Russell Harlan's evocative B&W cinematography conspire to capture the flavorful essence of a decaying South.
Central to the movie’s potency are the performances given by Phillip Alford and Mary Badham, as Atticus’ children, Jem and Jean Louise – nicknamed, Scout. Herein, Mulligan is immeasurably blessed to have two of the greatest discoveries of their generation; each an old soul in a child’s body and able to combine the inquisitiveness of a probing mind with intuitive reflections for someone well beyond their years. Child stars are a tough nut to crack – most put through the ringer by stage mommies before they are even able to ascertain what childhood is and thereafter adopting the well-rehearsed and copycatted mannerisms of their parental wranglers, in the process adding artificiality to their exercise. Neither Alford nor Badham share in this unattractive quality. In fact, if anything, each has adopted some of Gregory Peck’s characteristics; a very solid role model, indeed.   
Horton Foote’s screenplay covers a life-altering three year span in the lives of our prepubescent protagonists; Scout and Jem, who live with their father, attorney Atticus Finch and his hired housekeeper, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans) in Maycomb, Alabama. Apart from being a respected member of his community, Atticus is a moralist, whose fervent belief all people should be treated with the utmost respect and dignity has garnered him silent contempt from the more bigoted town’s folk. Herein, both the novel and the movie are a tad too simplistic in pigeon-holing poverty as the root of all racism.  Nevertheless, Jem and Scout are well brought up and behaved, left mostly to their own accord during the summer months; getting into polite mischief, particularly when spying on teenager, Boo Radley (Robert Duval) the neighborhood’s mute, kept a virtual shut-in by his parents to quell rumors about his stunted mental development. Atticus is determined his children should come to their own humility by his living example. As such, he accepts hickory nuts and other produce from Walter Cunningham (Crahan Denton) as remuneration for some legal work because his client has no money.
Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) appoints Atticus as legal counsel to Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping a white teenager, Mayella Ewell. Naturally, the white constituency in town assumes he is guilty based solely on their biases. Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson comes with unanticipated repercussions on the home front. Never one to back down, the tomboyish Scout is involved in a skirmish at school; both she and Jem taunted by schoolmates. Learning of a plot underway to lynch Tom Robinson , Atticus takes his rifle and sets up a post outside the county jail. When Mr. Cunningham and an angry mob arrive for the lynching they discover Atticus unwilling to allow them to pass. As the mood of the mob grows more ominous, Jem and Scout, along with a visiting child, Dill Harris (John Megna) earlier befriended, naively rush to intervene. Recognizing Mr. Cunningham, Scout innocently asks him to say ‘hello’ to his son – a fellow classmate. Scout’s inability to grasp the reason for the mob and her willingness to still see the good in people, particularly someone she already knows, shames Cunningham, the chief instigator of the mob. Rather than deface his reputation in Scout’s eyes, Cunningham elects to go home. Having lost their leader, the mob disperses. Although grateful, Atticus later instructs his children they are to stay away from the jail from now on.
As the trial commences Scout and Jem sneak into the all-black upstairs visitor’s gallery to quietly observe their father at work. Atticus skillfully lays out Tom’s defense. While it is certain Tom came to the Ewell farm at Mayella’s request to assist her in chopping up a chifforobe, Atticus establishes a timeline of paternal abuse that could easily be responsible for the bruises on Mayella’s body. Bob Ewell (James Anderson) is, after all, a notorious drunkard and a racist, prone to fits of violence and possibly even sexual assault on his own kin. Atticus illustrates for the all-white male jury how the rapist in question was left-handed. He further points to the fact Tom is crippled in his left hand but Bob is left-handed; the implication fairly clear and incurring Bob’s wrath.
Moreover, Atticus points out no physical examination was ever conducted to determine whether Mayella was actually raped. Now, Mayella takes the stand. Alas, her testimony has been coerced out of fear. So, Atticus places Tom on in the witness box. Tom denies the attack, but states Mayella spontaneously kissed him. He also admits to feeling ‘sorry’ for her – a lethal blunder in his defense strategy, since the jury considers it highly suspect for a black man to feel empathy toward a white woman.  After minimal deliberation, the jury finds Tom guilty as charged; a crushing defeat for Atticus, who vows to appeal. Despite the conviction, the black attendees in the visitor’s gallery rise in unison to commemorate Atticus’ eloquent defense.
No sooner has he arrived home, then Atticus is informed by Sheriff Heck Tate (Frank Overton) Tom was killed by a deputy during his transfer to prison. The official story is Tom was trying to escape. The more insidious truth is likely the deputy took matters into his own hands; retribution for Tom’s crime of rape. Bitterly disappointed, Atticus and Jem drive out to the Robinson family home – a shanty on the outskirts of town, to inform his next of kin. As Jem waits his father’s return he is greeted by one of the Robinson children; then, a most unwelcome and startling surprise. Bob Ewell emerges from the bushes, intent on terrorizing the family. Atticus thwarts the assault and is spit on by Bob, who retreats into the woods more embittered than ever. With the coming of fall, Scout and Jem settle into their routine studies at school. The unpleasantness of the trial fades.  Scout and Jem partake in an evening Halloween pageant; Scout, dressed as a cured ham. Somehow, Scout’s dress and shoes have been misplaced, forcing her to walk the long distance home in her restrictive costume. Alas, tonight’s walking trip will be anything but uneventful. Scout and Jem are attacked while cutting through the woods; Jem knocked unconscious and Scout escaping from her costume just in time to see a man carrying Jem’s weak body back home.
Scout alerts Atticus to their ordeal. Doc Reynolds (Hugh Sanders) is summoned and quickly ascertains Jem’s arm has been broken. Atticus sends for the Sheriff. Noticing Boo standing behind the door in Jem’s bedroom, Scout realizes he saved their lives back in the woods. Sheriff Tate confirms the body of Bob Ewell has been discovered in the woods with a knife stuck through his ribs. Atticus assumes Jem killed Ewell in self-defense. But Tate reasons the child would not have had the strength to overpower his attacker. Instead, he recognizes Boo, who came to the children’s defense in friendship. Alas, to cast a spotlight on Boo would be ‘a sin’; the boy obviously unable to deduce right from wrong or able to make sense of the publicity that would befall him should the story go public. Together, Atticus and Tate concoct an alternative theory of the murder they can both agree upon as the official story; Bob, drunken and stumbling, having fallen on his own knife. In the final moments of our story, Scout likens the outing of Boo Radley to the parable about killing a mockingbird. The movie concludes with Scout being able to see the world from Boo’s point of view as Atticus keeps vigil over Jem while he sleeps.
To Kill a Mockingbird is required viewing – period. Few movies are, but this one ought to be seen by every man, woman and child. Small wonder, a recent AFI poll picked Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch as the #1 movie hero of all time; proof positive the true measure of any man ought never be confused with the size of his biceps or his ability to mop up the floor with his competition. Peck’s man of integrity possesses the, at first, unseen strength of his convictions and the towering weight of his perseverance. There is nothing in the world stronger than human kindness and Peck’s Atticus Finch is compassionate to a fault.   Throughout filming, 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 she gave Peck a time piece belonging to her late father on which she had based her literary incarnation of Atticus Finch, explaining to Peck how she could almost believe he was her father. As an actor, Peck could have been paid no finer a compliment.
Universal Home Video will re-issue To Kill A Mockingbird again on Blu-ray: same disc/same transfer, minus the ‘50th Anniversary’ header. The 1080p transfer is competently rendered, though hardly perfect. Film grain is the biggest concern herein, looking clumpy in long shots and artificially smoothed out in close-ups. There is, in fact, a brief ‘restoration’ featurette that explains at least part of this inconsistency. A lot of the pans and zooms in this movie were done optically - meaning not in camera but in postproduction (blowing up the image), resulting in an exaggerated amount of film grain. Personally, I’ve never understood the point of this practice, unless, of course, as an afterthought to punctuate some dramatic highlight in the scene. Either way, optical zooms/dissolves etc. add undue graininess to the image. Universal has attempted to level off the exaggerations, using some skillful DNR digital tools at their disposal, taking a medium gradient to homogenize the grain structure. But the B&W image doesn’t seem to pop as it should; suffering less than vibrant whites and black levels that often devolve into tonal gray. Is this an approximation of how To Kill A Mockingbird looked in 1962? Hmmm. I’m guessing, no. But I’m just guessing.
There are definite pluses: edge enhancement is gone. So is pixelization. However, To Kill A Mockingbird has always looked a tad soft on home video. This Blu-ray is no exception. Fine details are present, but not as defined as I anticipated. Contrast is solid. Exterior daytime scenes fare the best with the gray scale looking quite marvelous. Interiors and scenes shot at night have a slightly dingy quality I am unable to quantify more astutely. I am still not entirely certain this is the best this film might look on Blu-ray. I suspect someone at the controls has tinkered just a wee too much with the visuals, or perhaps, not quite enough. The transfer is competently rendered, but it fails to impress. The new DTS mono audio really adds kick to Elmer Bernstein's score. Dialogue continues to sound slightly strident and thin. But hey - this is a re-purposed vintage mono track. Due diligence has been paid in preserving it. That is about all we can expect. So, good news here.
Not so much in the way the many extra features have been handled. Virtually all are in 480i and generally look a mess. The worst of the lot is Fearful Symmetry - the exceptionally comprehensive documentary on the making of the film, prepared all the way back in 1992 for the LaserDisc release of To Kill A Mockingbird. Shot in an aspect ratio of 1:85:1, this exceptional piece has not been enhanced for widescreen TVs - for shame! It’s window-boxed on all four sides. Adjusting the zoom on one’s remote control is pointless, as digital combing becomes immediately apparent and the image becomes so out of focus, with severely muddy colors to boot, there is really no point to watching any of it. We also get 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 proved him a rarity in Hollywood; a gentleman’s actor. Next up is Cecilia Peck’s loving (if slightly rambling) tribute to her late father, given during an honorary Academy dinner. This is followed by Mary Badham’s glowing reminiscences of working with Peck. Finally, we get 'Conversations with Gregory Peck' - a thorough documentary, easily worth the price of admission, that follows Peck as he gives a series of lectures and backstage passes during his emeritus years.  
Parting thoughts:  not the image of perfection I was hoping for, but more than adequately rendered and sure to please the casual viewer. Bottom line: it’s the storytelling that ought to be the focus herein. Fair enough, this one should have sparkled in hi-def. As it stands, it is present and accounted for, easily besting the tired old DVD transfer from some years ago, but not entirely living up to Blu-ray’s claim of ‘perfect picture and theater quality sound’. Aside: I can count on my hands and feet the number of transfers that satisfy this marketing ploy. So Universal is in the majority on this one; again, in my opinion, not entirely the very best place to be. One final point: this isn’t the same Universal 100th Anniversary booklet edition of the movie the studio charged a whopping $11.00 more, despite the fact the digital content on both editions is virtually identical. I can't see why anyone spent eleven dollars more for that 44 page booklet edition: basically a cut and paste job with photos and press junket materials any clever fifteen year old, savvy in Photoshop, could have produced.  Recommended, with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5 (for feature) 1 (for extras)


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