An adaptation of the novel written by Harper Lee and directed by Robert Mulligan, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the few good courtroom movies I have seen. The film poster says, "The rare film story of a father who must expose his children to a small town's outraged passions...and can only protect them with his love." It is indeed a rare film story which is explicitly mentioned as 'not suitable for children', and yet narrates the story in the view of a young tomboy Scout.
To Kill a Mockingbird was set in a fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama in 1932. It looks into the prevalence of racism in Maycomb society through three young children namely, Scout, Jim and Dill, and focuses on the character of Scout's father Atticus Finch. Intertwined between these characters, the story goes on about how Atticus defends a negro Tom Robinson who allegedly raped a white woman Mayella Ewell. Though the case is strong in Tom's side, the racist tendency of the society results in Atticus losing the case. However, Atticus efforts gain him the respect from other black people in the society. In the other hand, the story also talks about Boo Radley, and the children's imagination about his monstrous appearance. Final scenes talk about how the vengeful father of Mayella attacks Scout and Jim and how Boo saves them by killing the attacker.
There are scenes which give scintillating effect to the viewers. Let me describe few here.
- The courtroom scene: As said earlier, the courtroom scene makes clear that Tom Robinson is innocent, and it was Mayella who tried to take advantage of him, and it was her father who beat her up. In this scene, Atticus' appeal to the all white jury to keep aside their prejudice and consider the case in human point of view, is one of the best pieces of dialogue I have heard. Yet the all white jury finds Tom guilty anyway. The best of the scene is the quietness the verdict receives from either side. Neither the whites cheer much, nor the blacks send cries of protest. This quietness is clear symbol of the faultiness of the verdict and tolerance of the blacks. Jewel in the crown is the saying by a reverend, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your father's passin."
- The lynch mob scene: A lynch mob of white men tries to attack Tom Robinson in a jailhouse. Being prepared to break in and hang Robinson, the mob faces Atticus himself guarding the jailhouse. In that remarkable scene, Scout being unaware of the intentions of the mob, bursts onto the scene and shames a poor farmer into leaving. Despite being of innocent words, her speech shows a strategic exercise. It made me wonder whether a child could turn away such an angry lynch mob? The way the scene is portrayed clearly provides an aye for an answer.
- Spit on the face scene: After the death of Tom, Atticus goes to his house to inform Tom's wife. Bob Ewell appears there and calls one of the black men, "Boy, go in the house and bring out Atticus Finch." One of them does so and when Atticus is out, Bob spits on his face, Atticus stares at him, wipes his face and drives away. There seem no specialty in this scene as such. But the face expressions by the two actors is the gem. Atticus' angry but confident look and Ewell's unstable fear in the stare down were well captured in camera.
- Killing a Mockingbird scene: The climax sees a sudden appearance of Boo Radley. Robert Ewell is found dead with a knife stabbed under his ribs, and Boo appears in Jim's room. This appearance is much unexpected because of the descriptions of Boo and the story's focus away from him. Though it becomes obvious that Boo killed Bob, Sheriff says, "There's a black man dead for no reason and the man responsible for that is dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time." After this, so far innocent Scout reaches to her father and with much understanding of the situation and states that what the Sheriff says is right because sending Boo to the gallows would be like "killing a mockingbird".
Added to the excellent story by Harper Lee and direction by Robert Mulligan, the third element that leads the viewer to concentrate on the movie is music by Elmer Bernstein. In fact, till the movie was over, I almost forgot there has been a background music going on. It has so embedded with the screenplay. Hats off to Bernstein.
In total, To Kill a Mockingbird is an artistic depiction of the then society of Alabama. It views, speaks and plays the reality of a racist society and the few good men in it. No wonder it remains in the top 100 in IMDB ratings for the past 23 years.