Paul Fix

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

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.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

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.


After the Thin Man (1936, W.S. Van Dyke)

There is very little economy to After the Thin Man; instead, screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and director W.S. Van Dyke act with rampant abandon. The first twenty or so minutes of the film is just audience gratification–it’s a sequel to a popular film and the filmmakers are giving the audience what they want. They’re doing it well, sure, but it doesn’t have much to do with the eventual narrative.

Instead, Goodrich, Hackett and Van Dyke stage massive comedic set pieces, whether it’s William Powell and Myrna Loy getting home to a surprise party in their honor where no one notices them or Asta the dog’s rather amusing (and beautifully staged) domestic problems.

The murder mystery itself doesn’t start until about a half hour in. The plotting of the film is significant too–it’s a direct sequel to the previous movie and the first sixty-seven minutes are continuous. Once Powell and Loy finally get to go to sleep, there are only about forty minutes left. Strangely enough, the only time the film plods is during those forty minutes. The last twenty minutes breeze by, but some of the investigating is too full of exposition to move well.

Lots of great supporting performances–Joseph Calleia, Elissa Landi, James Stewart, Jessie Ralph, Levine, Penny Singleton. The script gives the supporting cast lots to do.

Technically, Van Dyke and editor Robert Kern do have problems with disconcerting cuts to close-ups–and then not cutting to Loy in the finale–but otherwise, the film’s a fantastic time.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from a story by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Robert Kern; music by Herbert Stothart and Edward Ward; produced by Hunt Stromberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora), James Stewart (David), Elissa Landi (Selma), Joseph Calleia (“Dancer”), Jessie Ralph (Aunt Katherine), Alan Marshall (Robert), Teddy Hart (Casper), Sam Levene (Abrams), Penny Singleton (Polly), William Law (Lum Kee), George Zucco (Dr. Kammer) and Paul Fix (Phil).


The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936, John Ford)

Warner Baxter is one good actor. I’ve only seen him in one other film, but he’s great in The Prisoner of Shark Island. Baxter’s got a depth to him–he builds on it, adds to it, throughout scenes and throughout the film. Shark Island is about the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg–and is an idealized portrait of the physician, which is unimportant–and almost everything in the film happens to Baxter… and when he actually has to do something for himself, it’s a big something.

Shark Island is another pre-World War II John Ford film. This John Ford is the one who made The Informer, not the one who made The Searchers (but it is the same Ford who made Stagecoach). Color didn’t change Ford too much, since the post-WWII cavalry trilogy are not the same Ford as this film and at least one of those is black and white. The Shark Island Ford is the one who did exciting things with confined space and people’s place in that space, as opposed to the later Ford, who did things with open space and the place of people in that space. That sentence has two “that” spaces, I hope it makes sense. Since Shark Island is from the 1930s and it’s from Fox, it has a certain feel to it. It’s filmic. Fox films from the 1930s don’t have the crispness of an MGM or Warner picture. Ford perfectly creates a 1860s time period too. It’s lushly rural for the Maryland scenes and then the scenes on the prison island are spacious but confined. With Shark Island, you get the feeling Ford didn’t know what he was doing and he was trying things. Ford is the most confident filmmaker I’ve ever seen, so seeing him exert himself and succeed is interesting.

He does get quite a bit of help from Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay. Johnson went on to write The Grapes of Wrath for Ford, which might be the last of this period of his career. Regardless, Johnson is unsung superstar. The Prisoner of Shark Island has a number of conversations and they’re these beautiful moments–even if they aren’t the defining conversations of the film, which are beautiful too–but these conversations are perfectly paced and rich. They’re rich. They’re full of living character. Ripe with it. Having Gloria Stuart as the wife makes a lot of the film work. Without her, it wouldn’t work as well. Stuart’s wonderful in the film. There’s also a great performance by Ernest Whitman, who was black and got fourteenth billing instead of fourth (which he deserved). Then there’s John Carradine as a sadistic prison guard. He’s so good and Ford knows it. He gives Carradine these awesome creepy angles, something a later Ford wouldn’t have done.

I guess Shark Island never had a VHS release in the United States–but Fox Movie Channel shows it a couple times a year (probably not for President’s Day, though it would be interesting–the film presents Lincoln as a humane, soft-spoken, decent person, which modern Americans certainly don’t find appealing in a president). I watched the Masters of Cinema release from the UK, which (for once) didn’t have any noticeable PAL speedup. It’s a good film to see, for both Baxter and Stuart, but particularly for Ford.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; written by Nunnally Johnson; director of photography, Bert Glennon; edited by Jack Murray; music by R.H. Bassett and Hugh Friedhofer; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Warner Baxter (Dr. Samuel Mudd), Gloria Stuart (Mrs. Peggy Mudd), Claude Gillingwater (Col. Jeremiah Milford Dyer), Arthur Byron (Mr. Erickson), O.P. Heggie (Dr. MacIntyre), Harry Carey (Commandant of Fort Jefferson), Francis Ford (Cpl. O’Toole), John McGuire (Lt. Lovett), Francis McDonald (John Wilkes Booth), Douglas Wood (Gen. Ewing), John Carradine (Sgt. Rankin), Joyce Kay (Martha Mudd), Fred Kohler Jr. (Sgt. Cooper), Ernest Whitman (‘Buck’ Milford) and Paul Fix (David Herold).


After the Thin Man (1936, W.S. Van Dyke)

The last time I had a Thin Man marathon–which must have been five years ago, maybe more (I had the LaserDisc set, so I’m trying to remember when I started concentrating more on DVD), I thought After the Thin Man, the second film in the series, was disappointing. Now I’m not having a marathon, just watching the film, and that opinion was wrong. It seems to have come from comparing it to the first film too much (specifically, the first film’s brevity). After the Thin Man is excellent and establishes a lot of good sequel mechanisms… ones I don’t think the other Thin Man sequels employed (as they became closer in pacing to MGM’s other film series).

Coming into the second film, the audience has a few expectations–the banter and the mystery. After the Thin Man concentrates on the banter first, dedicating almost the entire first act to catching up with Nick and Nora. Dashiell Hammett actually wrote the story for After the Thin Man, they weren’t just being nice and putting his name on it–I have a copy somewhere, but never read it. Hammett started the story differently, with a dying man showing up on their doorstep. The film’s measured pacing, however, reminds the audience just why they liked the first film so much.

Today, past being one of the Thin Man films, it gets no notice. Even the Thin Man series has fallen away (and I remember in the 1980s, when it was such a big deal when all the films came out on VHS). I suppose it’s worthy of a footnote in James Stewart’s filmography, but James Stewart’s not really popular anymore, is he? Films made before 1983, it seems, offer nothing to moviegoers today (that snide remark is based on George Lucas’s “rejiggering” of the original Star Wars films and Peter Jackson remaking King Kong because he didn’t think audiences today should have to watch black and white films). Home video companies dedication to releasing their classic product is probably the best, unexpected benefit of the DVD format (as I type, The Complete Thin Man collection is #69 on Amazon’s DVD sales chart). The format’s introducing new audiences (I hope) to good films.

As a Thin Man film, After the Thin Man has a lot of the classic set pieces–Nick and Nora sleeping all day, after some late night scrambled eggs, is the one I’m recalling most. I was also surprised how funny some of the scenes get… I laughed at a couple as much as I laughed at the last episode of “American Dad.”

I can’t say much else, since I don’t want to spoil anything, but the killer’s unveiling is some damn great acting….

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from a story by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Robert Kern; music by Herbert Stothart and Edward Ward; produced by Hunt Stromberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora), James Stewart (David), Elissa Landi (Selma), Joseph Calleia (“Dancer”), Jessie Ralph (Aunt Katherine), Alan Marshall (Robert), Teddy Hart (Casper), Sam Levene (Abrams), Penny Singleton (Polly), William Law (Lum Kee), George Zucco (Dr. Kammer) and Paul Fix (Phil).



This film is also discussed in Sum Up | The Thin Man.
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