During To Kill a Mockingbird’s exceptional opening titles, I wondered how it was possible the film was going to look so amazing yet had no reputation for being some exquisitely, precisely directed piece of cinema. Then up came Stephen Frankfurt’s credit for title design, which kind of dulled my excitement for a moment. Could Mulligan maintain what Frankfurt set up—along with composer Elmer Bernstein, who’s score is essential to the film–with these opening titles?
Short answer, yes. The first hour of Mockingbird is, while obviously not as fastidiously executed as the opening titles (which examine the various contents of a child’s mementos box), is exquisite. Mulligan, Bernstein, cinematographer Russell Harlan–Mockingbird is a gorgeous black and white—screenwriter Horton Foote, and actors Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, and John Megna create this bewitching window into a memory of childhood. An uncredited Kim Stanley narrates from—presumably—the present; she’s grown-up Badham, who’s just about to start school (South in the early thirties, guessing first grade versus kinder); Alford’s her older brother, Megna’s the new kid on the block, an out-of-town visitor. Her dad’s a widower, respected lawyer Gregory Peck. They’re not rich but they’re respected. They’ve got a Black housekeeper (Estelle Evans), who Peck treats with as much respect as if she were his white housekeeper slash babysitter. It’s a progressive block. They’re not country white trash. The first hour has a little about race, but a lot of it is about how tomboy Badham learns about class differences and societal norms.
The first hour is this lovely, mostly lyrical look into Badham and Alford’s childhood. Running through the distant background is Peck’s subplot about defending a Black man accused of rape. The kids aren’t allowed in the courthouse (by Dad Peck); Foote and Mulligan gradually introduce the subplot. And the idea of Peck as the lead. Until the second hour, it’s from Badham and Alford’s perspective. A little bit too much from Alford’s given Badham’s literally the narrator but thanks to Mulligan’s gentle, deliberate direction of the kids’ perceptions of events, Harlan’s great photography (which is even better at night), and Bernstein’s music, it gets a pass; narrative-wise. The film’s got enough going for it, you can give it slack for not sticking close enough to Badham.
In fact, the film’s got so much going for it, you want to give it that slack even after it becomes obvious it’s never looping around to Badham again. Even with further narration breaks, once the film starts straying from Badham’s perspective, it never comes back. It goes to Alford, then Peck—albeit for the continuous second act courtroom sequence—then back to Alford in an almost peculiar way (the film avoids Badham during the court scenes), then to Peck for the finale because he’s got top-billing. Though not in a significant way. Even though he’s top-billed, even though he’s got the lengthy court scene mostly to himself, Peck always feels like a special guest star. “And Gregory Peck as Atticus (Dad).”
Whenever Peck comes into the film in the first act, the kids bring him in somehow. Either they call him into the scene or go find him or call him into the scene… but it starts with the kids. Foote and Mulligan keep that perspective in the second act, just before the trial starts, when the kids go and stand by Peck as he’s standing off against a white trash lynch mob. It’s a good segue to the courtroom and Peck taking over the narrative. It makes sense; his subplot’s been building and the trial is occupying the children’s minds too.
So during the trial—Brock Peters plays the accused, not actually appearing onscreen until his day in court—the kids (Badham, Alford, and Megna) watch from the second floor balcony, where a kindly Black minister (Bill Walker) they know gets room for them. The trial seems to take less than a day. 1930s South. Every once in a while as Peck tries to convince his fellow white people Black people are people too and you can’t frame them for rape just because you’re an asshole, the film cuts up to Alford watching his dad crusade, presumably inspiring him. Megna gets some reaction shots too, which makes it seem like as long as Southern Whites aren’t white trash they won’t be racist but… I don’t know, aspirational 1962 film. The film’s got a few moments of bald-faced white saviorism but since it’s 1962, it’s not like the Black characters appear enough to be shown in specific suffering. It’s a weird way to get a pass but… it works.
But no shots of Badham. Not even after the end of the trial. Not right away. And they’re way overdue. We don’t get any idea how Badham experiences the trial, other than she’s tired when it’s over. It’s all about Alford. And not from Badham’s perspective.
The third act epilogue, which resolves everything and ends in a nice narration bow from Stanley and very deliberate, effective direction from Mulligan, somehow centers on Badham but, again, not her experience of it. Mulligan and Foote commit to one way of doing a big scene, maybe the only way they could do it in 1962, and it’s a well-executed scene with some great filmmaking… but it doesn’t do anything for Badham or give her much to do. Then it tries to wrap it up with Peck and it’s… awkward. Not even because of the narration.
Lots of great performances but the kids are where it’s at. Badham and Alford are phenomenal. Megna’s really good too but he’s more functional. The film takes its time with Badham and Alford’s character development, showcasing it, which just makes downgrading them in the second half even worse. Evans is good (there’s a film in her perspective of the events), Peters is excellent, Frank Overton’s good as the police chief. James Anderson’s terrifying though a little thinly written, which is weird given how the film goes out of its way to empathize with “redeemably racist” white men, as the victim’s father. Collin Wilcox Paxton is okay as the victim. If the film ended strong for Badham, she’d get a pass… but she’s another example of how Foote and Mulligan try to avoid giving the female characters too much focus.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent film. But there are some asterisks after that positive adjective.
Directed by Robert Mulligan; screenplay by Horton Foote, based on the novel by Harper Lee; director of photography, Russell Harlan; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Mary Badham (Scout), Phillip Alford (Jem), Gregory Peck (Atticus), Estelle Evans (Calpurnia), John Megna (Dill Harris), Brock Peters (Tom Robinson), Frank Overton (Sheriff Heck Tate), Rosemary Murphy (Maudie Atkinson), Collin Wilcox Paxton (Mayella Violet Ewell), James Anderson (Bob Ewell), Ruth White (Mrs. Dubose), Robert Duvall (Arthur Radley), Richard Hale (Nathan Radley), Steve Condit (Walter Cunningham Jr.), Crahan Denton (Walter Cunningham Sr.), Bill Walker (Reverend Sykes), and Paul Fix (Judge Taylor); narrated by Mary Stanley.