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To Kill a Mockingbird: Legacy Series

It's a long road between To Kill a Mockingbird and Do the Right Thing. And we're not talking years, baby, but the hard-marched mileage. For those us born at about the time To Kill a Mockingbird brought Harper Lee's humanist hero, Atticus Finch, to the screen in 1962, watching this DVD gets us pondering something beyond the film's much-loved and much-analyzed virtues. Of course there's Gregory Peck's indelible and deeply personal portrayal of a small-town Southern widower lawyer whose steadfast decency and integrity spur him to accept an unwinnable case, defending a "nigger" accused of raping a white woman. By telling its story through the eyes of children — tomboy Scout (Mary Badham, a remarkable debut performance) and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) — the film deserves the warm affection we hold for its authentic-feeling evocation of childhood in all its textures and preoccupations and endings. And anyone who knows To Kill a Mockingbird only as required reading knows that it calmly yet resolutely placed our hand over the nation's flaming racial issues. While set in Alabama during the Great Depression, its reason to exist was the prejudice that finally became too endemic to ignore in the 1950s and '60s. It came camouflaged in nostalgia, but its targets were wholly contemporary. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it exposed the cruelty and cowardice intertwined with poverty and ignorance, and victims whose inherent blamelessness amounts to exactly nothing when the injustice is so engrained it's institutional.

All that's by now such well-trod ground that to call the film an "American classic" feels redundant. But for a viewer whose years so far pretty much equal the film's, it comes as a useful jolt to watch To Kill a Mockingbird and see how much has changed — in America and its looking-glass, Hollywood — during that single lifespan.

The film couldn't have been more precision-molded to be a Hollywood "masterpiece" if it had rolled off a Rolls-Royce line. However, rather than anodize it by tritely calling it "timeless," we'll say instead that To Kill a Mockingbird was the right film at the right time. As a consciousness-raiser, it is of and for the early 1960s, when movie audiences were not necessarily integrated and shocks sharper than the term "nigger lover" came only from Alfred Hitchcock. Inevitably then, to us today its topicality can appear muted and off-balance. The racism plot involving the black man, played by Brock Peters, keeps its eyes on how the corrupt courtroom trial and its tragic aftermath affect the white characters (and audiences). Although Mockingbird's moral passion comes in a mainstream and strategically naive movie that's sometimes too aware of its Teachable Moments, that doesn't reduce the effect of our understanding — really getting — that Tom Robinson's innocence or guilt never was the point or concern of that jury. This is not a trial about justice, but about holding on to control. We can scarcely imagine how that courtroom scene impacted an audience in a movie house in Mississippi in 1962.

The instances when director Robert Mulligan achieves an effect by choosing bluntness over finesse are smoothed by the more sensitive — often sublime — elements, such as Horton Foote's respectful and restrained screenplay, the Southern gothic atmosphere captured in Russell Harlan's rich black-and-white cinematography, and the ideal casting at every level (including Robert Duvall's screen debut as ante-Sling Blade Boo Radley). Complementing it all perfectly is Elmer Bernstein's gentle and heartrending score.

With the Tom Robinson plot intertwining with Scout and Jem's education in the ugly flaws of a world they're only beginning to comprehend, today the film offers an extra accumulated layer of "meaning." Less than six months after Mockingbird premiered, a white racist gunned down Medgar Evers outside his home in Jackson, Miss., and the civil rights movement found its flash point. The event catalyzed people, black and white, nationwide. It took thirty-one years for Evers' killer to be brought to justice, but during those years so much happened that, looking back, Scout and Jem's loss of innocence personifies our own as a nation. Their Halloween night journey through the woods, where they are assaulted by a man who had publicly proclaimed his own righteousness, is metaphorical enough to support any number of term papers on the film's symbolism.

We can enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird both as a movie and as a reminder that only one lifespan separates Atticus Finch from, say, Spike Lee. In that one generation, four hundred years of culturally entrenched Jim Crow withered. Today black filmmakers bring a "black perspective" to our screens directly, or (just as significantly) don't feel that they have to at all. Brock Peters died two weeks before the release of this DVD. His screen career started with 1954's Carmen Jones, which capitalized on the novelty of its "all Negro" cast. But chances are that he is more recognized by today's viewers as a Starfleet admiral in two Star Trek movies, where he plays a man of power whose skin color is not commented upon or is in any way material to the story. By any measure that's really important, we call that progress.

*          *          *

Universal's two-disc re-release of To Kill a Mockingbird, part of their 2005 "Legacy Series," brings the film to us in a mostly spotless print with the correct 1.85:1 (anamorphic) aspect ratio. Some grain pops out when Mulligan apparently had to artificially zoom in for a close-up, and we noticed moiré effects in Atticus' Harris tweed jacket and other tight fabric patterns, but otherwise this is a fine image. Along with the original monaural soundtrack, this edition adds DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio options, and both are pleasing and subdued while spreading the crickets and birdsongs around the ears just enough.

There's a commentary audio track with director Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula. It's a lackluster but informative first-hand retrospective. Most of the other extras are more enlightening. Topping the list are two feature-length documentaries that delve into the film and its marquee star. Charles Kiselyak's 1998 "Fearful Symmetry: The Making of To Kill a Mockingbird" rambles through much of its 90 minutes, but it's a thorough backgrounder supported by interviews with Peck, Robert Mulligan, Horton Foote, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Brock Peters, Robert Duvall, producer Pakula, Elmer Bernstein, and more. Then from Turner Classic Movies we get "A Conversation with Gregory Peck" (97 mins.), an outstanding personal and probing 1999 documentary on the star from director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA). It was co-produced by Peck's daughter Cecilia, and it delivers testimonials by Mary Badham, Lauren Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Peck's children, and others.

"Scout Remembers" is a 12-minute NBC News interview with Mary Badham from 1999. Other welcome bits are an excerpt from the Academy's tribute to Peck, hosted by his daughter (Harper Lee is there and receives a standing ovation); clips from Peck's Oscar acceptance speech and AFI Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech; lengthy production notes; the theatrical trailer narrated by Peck; and a set of international Mockingbird movie posters well reproduced on firm 5x7" card stock, plus a card with a message from Harper Lee. It all comes in a handsome and extra-sturdy trifold digipak.

—Mark Bourne

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