As a child, I received a boxed set of books. Four, I believe: The Martian Chronicles, The Big Sky, The Red Pony (or maybe Where The Red Fern Grows) and To Kill A Mockingbird. I read Martian and Red and Bradbury and Steinbeck became huge influences and my “go to” reads for years. I still have in my bookshelf the other two books, but I have not read either of them (yet). Which is, I suppose, bad enough.
Worse still, though, I’ve never seen the movie with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters and, goodness, lots of great actors young and old. Or I hadn’t, until recently when it rolled around to our new “classics” joint, The Regency. (Regency is a chain, so if you’re interested in classic films, you might be able to check some of these greats out, too!) And?
Well, we were all kind of surprised. The impression one would get from listening to, well, everyone, is that this is a movie about an unjustly accused black man in the South. But it’s not: It’s a slice-of-life story which features, as one of many elements, the story of the unjustly accused black man. Granted, that’s a big part of it, and the hub of the action, but the movie is really about Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch (Peck), and how she views the world (and herself) over the course of about 15 months.
In fact, the trial itself threatens to go on too long. The movie kind of stops when Finch is there defending defending Tom (Brock Peters), taking our attention off Scout (Mary Badham, little sister of the great director John Badham!), her brother Jem (Philip Allford), and their trouble-making summer pal, Dill (John Megna). And let me pause for a moment to note how incredible these child actors are. You can really see why Badham got the nod for acting Oscar (losing out to Patty Duke’s Helen Keller).
I couldn’t quite tell how while it was happening, but as the trial progressed, I got more drawn into it. I like Gregory Peck, of course, but why he’s great here is that he has to stand back and dial things down. Brock Peters (maybe best known to “kids today” for his voice work on shows like “Johnny Bravo” and “Samurai Jack” or his performances on “Deep Space 9”), kicks ass. William Windom (who, like Peters, worked like crazy for the next three decades, before getting a big boost from his recurring role on “Murder, She Wrote”) also does a standout job. The acting really is great, and it draws you in. The accuser (played by yet another stalwart TV character actor, Collin Wilcox Paxton) is so transparently unbelievable that you wonder how—but then, that’s the point, isn’t it?
And then, all of a sudden: Bam! There’s Robert Duvall.
The black-and-white photography is a little grainy and, at first, I was worried the film wasn’t going to exploit the great set and lighting potential to its fullest, but the cinematography sort of sneaks up on you. It starts very simple, even pedestrian, but builds to some fine dramatic uses at important points.
Elmer Bernstein’s score is good. Not, like, Airplane! good, but still.
We all liked it, needless to say.