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Universal Studios Home Video presents
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

"There are a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep them all away from you. That's never possible." 
- Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: October 04, 2005

Stars: Gregory Peck
Other Stars: Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Ruth White, Paul Fix, Brock Peters, Frank Overton, Rosemary Murphy, Collin Wilcox, Robert Duvall
Director: Robert Mulligan

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:09m:04s
Release Date: September 06, 2005
UPC: 025192786624
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

There may not be a more beloved movie in the American canon than this one, at once a memory piece, a coming-of-age story, and a fiercely righteous social drama; I don't know that it's a great film, really, but you'd have to be awfully hard hearted not to have a sentimental fondness for it. It's decidedly old fashioned in its storytelling in many respects, as is the novel upon which it is based, but Harper Lee's deceptively simple prose style is given an appropriate and respectful incarnation on the screen. The person who may be responsible for that more than anyone else is screenwriter Horton Foote, who for decades now has been writing pieces that are intimate and sometimes sentimental without being precious—perhaps it's because this script was an adaptation, but the self-conscious quality that sometimes seeps into his writing (I'd point, for instance, to The Trip to Bountiful on this score) is entirely absent.

But really, the best thing about this movie is the iconic performance in the lead role by Gregory Peck. As Atticus Finch, widowed father of two small children and upstanding country lawyer, Peck is the personification of all that's right and good: love for family, respect for the neighbors and the community, a man who assesses those he meets, as Dr. King said, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. He's the father that all of us dream of having, the parent we all aspire to be. He even gives respectability to his frequently denigrated profession, as I know of many well-intentioned college graduates who have gone off to law school to follow Atticus Finch's example. Peck embodies the character so completely that, even if you've read the novel before seeing the movie, he's the only one you could possibly imagine in the role, and it's the career-defining film for a great American actor. On screen and in our imagination, Atticus Finch is always and only Gregory Peck, and on some level, Gregory Peck is always Atticus Finch.

The story is set in a Depression-era small Mississippi town, with the focus firmly on Atticus and his family, specifically his daughter, Scout, and his son, Jem. Their mother died a few years back, and is a rapidly fading memory for these young children. They love and revere their father, whom they refer to by his first name, and while he works as a lawyer, much of the day-to-day child rearing is done by Calpurnia, their African-American housekeeper. This is decidedly the Jim Crow South, with broad and forbidding lines of segregation drawn between white and black, and making sense of the day-to-day business of this awful institutional racism is, for these children, so much of what the story is about. The story follows two principal tracks, the first of which concerns Scout, Jem and their summertime neighbor, Dill, who comes to spend the months out of school with his Aunt Stephanie. The kids are fascinated and scared by the eerily quiet Radley house down the street, the only one where you won't get a friendly word as you pass. Are the stories about the mysterious Radley boy, called Boo, true? Is he a monster, a demon, a torturer of children?

The first part of the film focuses on this, though it's more atmospheric than plot-driven. The movie, structurally, is maybe a little bit bottom heavy, shifting emphasis to the local case that threatens to make Atticus a pariah, among the white community, anyway. He is the defense attorney for Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Such an accusation alone was enough to get a black man lynched, and the possibility of such a defendant getting a fair hearing in a local court is impossibly slim. But Atticus, on the side of the angels, will try; his appeal to the facts and to the consciences of his white neighbors may not be enough to fight off their inexcusable, deeply ingrained prejudices, but it's Atticus's job to fight the good fight, and he does. It must have been especially poignant and provocative for audiences at the time of the film's release in 1962, during the apex of the civil rights movement, and it's hard to think of a stronger moral tale in all of American cinema.

The film sometimes does lay on the syrup a little thick, though, especially with courtroom histrionics. Also, because Peck is so galvanizing, it points up the fact that the film leans rather too heavily on its child actors. Lee's prose style is refracted through the consciousness of the children, something that's more effective on the page than on the screen; the kids here bear up pretty well, but really, they're asked to do a bit too much, and don't always have the chops to carry the mantle. But aside from Peck there is some extraordinary supporting work. Brock Peters as Tom Robinson is always controlled and steady, a victim of institutionalized prejudice and a wounded white woman's flights of fancy. It's a lethal combination for him, and Peters is tremendously expressive. Even more haunting is Robert Duvall, in an amazing, evocative cameo. On screen for just a few minutes and without a single spoken word, he conveys a crucial character's years of pain and hurt and neglect. Director Robert Mulligan's filmmaking style is deliberately unobtrusive, so much so that occasionally you may long for him to be a little less respectful, and to provide some point of view or stylistic flair. But one person's stodginess is another's reverence for a lauded story, and the test of Mulligan's work may be how the film has retained its gentle sense of wonder, even about a sometimes dark and unsettling adult world, even after all of these years. 

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This is a stunning and crisp transfer, preserving the sharpness of the original black-and-white photography; only the occasional blotch on the source print distracts from the visual presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Peck's sonorous voice is in perfect counterpoint to Elmer Bernstein's delicate score, and it's all well balanced on the various audio options. Your track of choice will likely depend on your home theater setup. Even if you're a Francophone, though, I would actively discourage you from listening to anything other than an English-language track, as there's no substitute for Peck's pipes.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
2 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Robert Mulligan and Alan J. Pakula
Packaging: Book Gatefold
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying lobby card and poster reproductions
Extras Review: This Legacy Series release from Universal is the second time the title has been issued on DVD, and it's difficult to imagine a more comprehensive package of extras. (That doesn't mean that the studio won't try to get you to triple dip at some point, though.) The film's director and producer recorded a commentary track, full of fond memories, about the children in the cast especially; you may be surprised to learn how much of the picture was shot on the Universal backlot, and not on location. You get a sense that you're in the hands of a couple of old pros, even if they trail off badly after an hour or so, with very little to say during the second half of the film. (This track was included on the first release as well—Pakula was killed in an awful and bizarre traffic accident in 1998.) Also on the first disc: Peck is the epitome of grace accepting his Oscar from Sophia Loren and delivering his speech (01m:28s); he's grayer and no less dashing accepting the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award (10m:02s), an evening which brought together some of the aging lions of Old Hollywood, now gone (Anthony Quinn, James Stewart), with younger actors who don't exactly measure up (Jimmy Smits, Henry Winkler). Peck's daughter Cecilia introduces her brothers and oversees an Academy salute to her father (10m:09s); and in a 1999 interview with NBC News, child actress Mary Badham is all grown up, as Scout Remembers (12m:01s) her happy times making this movie. The first disc also includes an original trailer and production notes providing a brief project history.

Disc Two contains two feature-length documentaries that are both full of warmth and enlightenment. A Conversation with Gregory Peck (01h:37m:26s) is an overview of the actor's life and work, structured around an evening in a Boston theater with an adoring audience; Peck plays the grand old man and happily takes questions, as clips fill in gaps for career highlights and personal milestones. Fearful Symmetry: The Making of To Kill a Mockingbird (01h:30m:08s), directed by Charles Kiselyak, is of course shot in black and white; it features interview footage with Peck, Pakula, Bernstein, Badham, Foote, Peters, Duvall and Philip Alford, who played Jem. The spectral, unseen presence is Harper Lee, though there are some interviews with residents of her hometown, and the documentary is especially insightful situating the film in the context of the civil rights movement. Also included in the extras package is an envelope full of thick stock cards featuring reproductions of 11 posters for the movie from around the world (though the story is filtered through the perspective of Atticus's kids, one of the posters warns that the film is "not suitable for children"). A gracious note from Lee about Peck is included with these cards as well.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

One of the best loved films of all time is given an appropriately respectful treatment on this DVD release, the special edition the picture has long deserved. The focus here is as much on Gregory Peck as it is on the movie itself; the wealth of extras and reverence for the man and especially his work in this movie make for a compelling, deeply felt two-disc release.


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