TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD – DVD review

Orson Welles is said to have remarked that no great film was ever made in color. Hyperbole or no, “To Kill a Mockingbird” surely makes Welles’s case.

Although the movie does not quite measure up to the rich tapestry created by Harper Lee in her best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, director Robert Mulligan’s “Mockingbird” (1962) is still one of Hollywood’s most successful screen adaptations of a literary work. By turns powerful, humorous, touching, and provocative, the film in its superb DVD incarnation comes as a welcome addition to any film lover’s library.

The plot traces the events of a year or so in the life of a widower, lawyer Atticus Finch, raising two children in a small Alabama town in the early 1930s. The events are seen through the eyes of his young daughter, Scout, who through the course of the film’s action learns much about tolerance, open-mindedness, courtesy, and respect, thanks largely to the example of her father.

The central episode in the narrative is about race relations–Atticus defends a black man accused of raping a white girl–yet the story is never preachy; and the lessons one learns about human dignity are more far-reaching than the movie’s trappings of racial prejudice and bigotry might suggest. Judging by the conduct people show toward one another on today’s afternoon talk shows, hate radio, and Internet forums, the movie’s themes are those from which we might all benefit.

Gregory Peck won an Oscar in 1962 for his portrayal of a noble attorney bucking the intolerance of an entire community. Peck, often criticized for being a somewhat wooden leading man, was never better than in this film, lending a quiet honor and a steadfast resolution to the proceedings. The two children, played by newcomers Mary Badham and Phillip Alford, not only look like we picture the kids in the book, but they are most natural and moving in their roles.

Equally impressive are Brock Peters as the gentle, innocent black man on trial; James Anderson as the vile redneck, Bob Ewell; and Robert Duvall in his first screen appearance as the misunderstood recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Everyone connected with the picture– director Mulligan, producer Alan Pakula, screenwriter Horton Foote (who also won an Oscar for his screenplay), music composer Elmer Bernstein, and others–deserve recognition for their impeccably harmonious efforts.

Video:
Universal’s designation of this DVD as a “Collector’s Edition” is well deserved. It is, indeed, something special. The widescreen presentation, measuring approximately 1.69:1 across a normal television, is first-rate in its black-and-white contrasts, a revelation to be sure. I’ve taught the book to high school students for over thirty years and shown the film a multitude of times, first on reel-to-reel and then on tape. Yet in all those many showings, I had never seen it either in widescreen (having never seen it in a theater) or in such depth and clarity of image until the DVD. To say that one can revel in details one never knew existed–the relationships of neighboring houses on the Finch block, the thinning of Bob Ewell’s hair, the individual leaves on trees–would be an understatement. The film’s new transfer unveils new surprises in every scene.

Audio:
The two-channel, Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is likewise superb in its vivid detail, rendering every word clear and intelligible. Mono may not be the height of sonic sophistication these days, but it does its job with commendable ease, and, frankly, one could hardly ask for more, given that the film has little need for surround sound or even two-channel stereo information.

Extras:
What’s more, Universal have included on their dual-layer disc a wealth of supporting material, including a wonderful ninety-minute documentary titled “Fearful Symmetry,” which itself is worth the price of purchase. Divided into twenty-four chapters, not only does the documentary trace the filming of the movie but it provides a fascinating, insightful, and poetic look into the real South pictured in the story and the real-life characters who inspired the book and film. In addition, there are numerous cast and production notes, an optional audio commentary with director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula, a theatrical trailer, and a remarkably generous thirty-nine scene selections. English and French are the spoken language options, with English and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
For me, one of the most poignant scenes in all of cinema is when young Scout meets the shy Arthur Radley for the first (and only) time and says, “Hey, Boo.” The words and the shot–Scout fearful with wonder and excitement, Arthur pressed against a wall, hiding in the shadows–couldn’t be more simple. Yet I’ve watched (and read) the scene probably a hundred times over, and it never fails to affect me anew each and every time. This is great filmmaking, and the movie deserves a place among the best movies ever made.

Fortunately, too, the folks at Universal are no longer asking a premium price for the disc, but even at twice the cost, it’s worth every cent. “Mockingbird” is endearing, heartwarming, tragic, uplifting, and, ultimately, inspiring. Movies don’t get any better than this. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the classic novels and classic films of the twentieth century.

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