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It’s a heavy week for classic films on Blu-ray, and most of these films have literal volumes written about them already. To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t just a movie we’ve all seen, it’s a movie most of us were forced to see as high school students, where our teachers forced us to critically dissect Harper Lee’s original book. There is very little I can add to this discussion. I’ll try to keep this part short. And for the five of you that weren’t forced to watch this film in your school days, here’s the gist of the story: Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem Finch (Phillip Alford), live in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the 1930s. Their father, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), is a respected town lawyer and who believes strongly that all people are to be treated fairly, to turn the other cheek, and to stand for what you believe. As Atticus attempts to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, Scout and Jem learn of the evils of racism, and mature painfully and quickly as they are exposed to it.

To Kill a Mockingbird
To restate the obvious, To Kill a Mockingbird is a socially and historically important motion picture, and brilliantly acted to boot. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is among the most iconic father-figure heroes in motion picture history, and the morals taught here are generally and commendably ahead of their time. In general To Kill a Mocking Bird is the grandfather of the modern courtroom drama, and its lineage can be traced all the way down to popular modern television like Law and Order. Perhaps it’s the film’s literary roots, or its historical place in courtroom fiction that inspire most dissections, but I hardly recall any real discussion concerning the film’s gorgeous visuals. Director Rober Mulligan (who worked his way through the CBS television system to the place of film director) is, unfortunately, not really know for many of his other films, which leads me to assume that the beautifully evocative black and white compositions are more the work of cinematographer Russell Harlan, who was nominated six times for best cinematography and who created lush images for a wide array of films, from Blackboard Jungle to Rio Bravo. The blocking is deceptively simple for the most part, allowing the camera to focus more on the performances and production design, but there are some beautiful breaks with normalcy, such as where Harlan shoots through curtains or furniture, and his use of expressionistic shadows rivals some of the best straight horror films of the era.

To Kill a Mockingbird is, thematically speaking, pretty far from a horror film, or even a film noir, but when they put their minds to it Mulligan, Harlan and composer Elmer Bernstein concoct a truly frightening filmic mix. The entire film is dripping with French influence (specifically early French New Wave like Godard and Truffaut), and dark noir thrillers (like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques or Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, which didn’t make its way to the US in time to have any real effect). This is all most apparent in the photographic choices, as Mulligan maintains a relatively straight-forward American storytelling style, but the long expressionistic shadows, sharp angles and even the simple use of black and white photography all seem to have been influenced by the gothic and noir. Obviously such things cannot be discussed without mentioning the omnipresent influence of Alfred Hitchcock on all things noir and horror, but much of To Kill a Mocking Bird feels post-Hitchcockian to me. The film I’m most reminded of (perhaps because I just re-watched it not that long ago) is Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, which is an even more visually extreme tale of darkness, and also told from the point of view of children. The child’s point of view offer Laughton and his cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who also shot The Magnificent Ambersons and Shock Corridor) the chance to breach reality with their images, and I find it hard to believe Mulligan and Harlan weren’t inspired a bit, specifically any time they were evoking a child’s point of view themselves (which is often the case for the scarier bits).

To Kill a Mockingbird

Video


Now that that’s out of the way, I can tell you all about this new 1080p Blu-ray transfer, which has been ‘digitally remastered and fully restored from high resolution 35mm film elements’. I haven’t seen the film in quite some time, and I’m pretty sure the last time I saw it I was watching a ragged VHS copy, so comparatively speaking I don’t have a lot to say about this transfer versus any DVD transfers, but I can state with utter certainty that outside of context this is a very good looking transfer, arguably touching upon perfection. By 1962, black and white was no longer the norm in Hollywood, and it would be easy to dismiss this transfer for its lack of colour and generally natural lighting, but this transfer features deep blacks, sharp details, warm blends, and wonderfully luscious textures. Close up textures, like hair, skin and clothing are life-like, but generally speaking I’m more impressed by the complexity of the darkest night shots, which feature intricate highlights that would likely go missing on a standard definition release. There is, of course, a bit of grain, but nothing thicker than even some of the most recently shot-on-film movies, and print damage-related artefacts are few and far between, including some minor frame shake and tiny flecks of dirt. The quality of tone in some of the more plainly lit shots, like those that fill out the courtroom scenes, is a bit flat, and there are occasionally mushy zoomed optical close-ups (as seen on the brief restoration featurette, these have been somewhat ‘corrected’ to even out the grain size), but the only wrong-doing on the part of the disc’s digital quality I can see are occasional edge haloes and sharpening effects.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Audio


This Blu-ray comes fitted with both a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix, and an uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio original 2.0 mono track. In cases like these I tend to prefer the original mono track, but watched the film in its entirety with the likely more popular 5.1 track before revisiting sections of mono to compare. Generally speaking the 5.1 track isn’t much different from the mono track, at least in terms of performance and effects. Any time Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score isn’t serenading the stereo and LFE channels I honestly couldn’t tell one track from another, which is how it should be. Both tracks feature well layered effects, and the 5.1 separates a few out into the stereo and surround channels, but for the most part depth is created through the placement in the center channel alone. The film shows its age here in terms of somewhat flat set-captured sound, and some of the foley work has been artificially added just for the sake of this modern mix (cars and birds sound especially ‘canned’ to me on the 5.1 track), but dialogue is consistent and clear, and Bernstein’s score is large and warm without to obviously over-selling itself.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Extras


The extras here mostly match the Universal Legacy series DVD release. These begin with a commentary track featuring director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula (recorded before Mulligan died in 2008). There’s a sizable lean on the performances here, as Mulligan walks us through the process of casting, working with children, and other actor’s director subjects, like finding subtext, etc. There is discussion of the production design, and the trials of visually telling the story, but for the most part their isn’t a lot of discussion about the look. Pakula often acts as a moderator, bringing up possible discussion matter for Mulligan in an almost interviewer’s style, and filling in facts about the history of the project, which was an early one for him as producer. These two elder statesmen do run out of steam, but overall maintain a relatively consistent level of discussion. The commentary is augmented with a ‘scene companion’ narrated by Cecilia and Anthony Peck U-Control option. These are scene specific.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Next up is the first of two feature length documentaries, Fearful Symmetry (90:10, SD). This artful, somewhat unfocused documentary (largely black and white) is narrated to some extent by Mary Williams (speaking for author Harper Lee), and features interviews with writer Horton Foote, director Robert Mulligan, producer Alan J. Pakula, actors Gregory Peck, Phillip Alford Brock Peters, Collin Wilcox Paxton, Robert Duvall and Mary Badham, Moroneville residents A.B. Blass, Norman Barnett and Ida Gaillard, Alabama attorney/actor Cleophus Thomas Jr. and composer Elmer Bernstein. It covers a wide swath of subject matter, including the original story’s real-life roots, the racial politics of the era, gaining studio backing for a film adaptation, casting, production and set design, art direction, music, the filming process, cinematography, deviations from the novel, and the lasting effects of the film and book. A Conversation with Gregory Peck (97:40, SD) features a title that mostly speaks for itself. This occasionally dull, mostly informative American Masters series documentary chronicles the life of the famous actor through the year 1999 (he died in 2003) through a Q and A session at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA, and fly-on-the-wall footage with the Peck family. Things are augmented with plenty of footage from Peck’s most celebrated films.

The disc also includes Peck’s Academy Award acceptance speech (1:30, SD), footage from the AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony for Peck (10:00, SD), an excerpt from a tribute to Peck (10:10, SD), Scout Remembers (12:00, SD), an interview with actress Mary Badham, a trailer, and 100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9:10, HD), which is hopefully a clue as to what we can expect on DVD over the next year.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Overall


I’m afraid I can’t say I’m going to feel like watching To Kill a Mockingbird again anytime soon, as it still feels a bit like school work, but I had fun looking at it from a more filmically knowledgeable point of view, and am happy to have this Blu-ray as a part of my collection. I can’t imagine the film ever looking or sounding better than this, despite some minor inconsistencies in video and audio quality, and can’t imagine any fan needing more extra features than are presented here.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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