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Walking Around in Someone Else’s Skin: The Classic Film, To Kill A Mockingbird

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Usually considered to have originated with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which was subtitled “A Gothic Story,” Gothic fiction is literature that attempts to combine elements of romance, mystery, and horror — without becoming either too fantastic or too realistic. Initially featuring decaying castles, curses, ghosts or other supernatural creatures and events, madness, murder, and “oft-fainting heroines,” Gothic fiction was hugely popular entertainment.

About a generation after Walpole, Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding Gothic villain in her novel A Sicilian Romance: a tempestuous, moody, sometimes secretive, and extremely passionate male who usually encounters a heroine that completely upsets his life. Later this type of “villain” would be called the Romantic era’s “Byronic hero.” Radcliffe also introduced more independent heroines to Gothic fiction with her bestselling The Mysteries of Udolpho. Though Radcliffe’s heroines are still pretty helpless and faint far more than anyone I’ve ever encountered, they inspired “gothic feminism” which critics claim the author herself expressed as “female power through pretended and staged weakness.” Further, Radcliffe changed the infant genre of Gothic fiction by introducing the “explained supernatural,” where all the apparently supernatural events, from ghosts and moving furniture to strange knocks and cries in the dark, turn out, eventually, to have perfectly reasonable, natural explanations.

Gothic fiction and its various, evolving components spread into the literature of the Romantic era, appearing in the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Poe. In the Victorian era, Gothic elements were more prominent in fiction, and are found in the work Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre).

Many of these Victorian authors added strong moral elements to their Gothic fiction, producing novels that questioned everything from man’s relationship with newly developing technologies and medical advances to man’s responsibility for feeding and educating the poor. Gothic literature became more than entertainment to pass the long hours of a dark and rainy night: it explored the meaning of life, morality, social responsibility, and man’s relationship to the Divine.

As Gothic fiction spread to authors in America, especially in the South, it became a sub-genre called Southern Gothic. Authors like Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, and Percy examined family relationships, sexuality, poverty, race, and the Southern myths of an idyllic antebellum past. Southern Gothic is filled with

deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters… ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.

With its particular focus on the South’s history of slavery, Southern Gothic became a vehicle for fierce social critique.

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of both American fiction and Southern Gothic. A coming-of-age story set in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama from 1933-1936, during the Great Depression, the novel examines everything from family relationships and mental health to societal responsibilities, poverty, violence, and crime. The 1962 film version, adapted from the novel by Horton Foote, eliminated some of the novel’s childhood adventures to concentrate on the aspects of its storyline that make To Kill a Mockingbird so important to American literature and film: the ugly and intractable racism between whites and blacks, a bigotry and intolerance that still exists over most of the country.

Mary Badham as Scout (forefront) with author Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

The film’s (unseen) narrator looks back on her six-year-old self and on the events that changed her from an innocent to a more mature child. In 1933, Scout (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama with their widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck).

Mary Badham as Scout, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and Phillip Alford as Jem, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Together with a visiting neighbor, Dill (John Megna, modeled after Harper Lee’s lifelong friend Truman Capote, who spent summers next door to the Lees with his aunts), Scout and Jem roam around the neighborhood and create their own adventures.

John Megna as Dill, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

One of their most exciting “games” is scaring each other with stories about the never-seen Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut),

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

who lives just a few doors down and who is rumored to be a crazed, scissors-wielding psychopath, once locked up in the courthouse basement jail.

Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Late one night, Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) comes over to request that Atticus serve as the appointed defense counsel for Tom Robinson (Brock Peters),

Gregory Peck as Atticus, and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

a black man who has been accused of brutally beating and raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox).

Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell (foreground), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Atticus agrees, but despite his attempts to shield his children from the consequences of his decision to represent a black man in a racially charged crime, Scout and Jem soon become involved in the racial “war” brewing around them.

Collin Wilcox as Mayella, and James Anderson as Bob Ewell (both, foreground), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

In particular, the father of the ostensible rape victim, Bob Ewell (James Anderson) tries several times to intimidate Atticus into quitting the case. When that doesn’t work, Ewell threatens violence against Atticus and his children.

Phillip Alford as Jem, and Mary Badham as Scout, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the children continue to find “gifts” in the hollow of a nearby tree, these gifts and their former adventures pale in significance to the events surrounding the crime concerning Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

By the time the trial starts, most of the town is divided and angry. Though Atticus warns his children to stay away from the courthouse completely, Jem refuses to be barred from the biggest event in the county, and Scout refuses to be left behind at home if Jem and Dill are going to the courthouse.

Phillip Alford as Jem, Mary Badham as Scout, and John Megna as Dill (L-R, foreground), with William Walker as Reverend Sykes (background, wearing suit and tie) To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Without Atticus’ knowledge or permission, Scout, Jem, and Dill sit in the gallery, in the “Negro section” of the court, and watch the entire trial.

William Windom as District Attorney (L), James Anderson as Bob Ewell (center), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background R), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Judge Taylor presides as the District Attorney (William Windom, in his film debut) badgers witnesses and makes his opinions about Tom Robinson’s guilt clear. Despite the fact that viewers can have no doubt whatsoever about the jury’s eventual verdict, the courtroom scenes are intensely riveting, especially when Atticus cross-examines Mayella herself.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the verdict is not in question, Mayella’s father, angry at the Atticus’ not-so-subtle accusations of incest and child abuse, provokes Atticus repeatedly in an attempt to draw him into a physical confrontation. Then, he decides to provoke Atticus by going after his children.

Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars:
Best Actor for Gregory Peck, Best Adapted Screenplay for Horton Foote, and Best Art Direction (set design, Black-and-White).

The film also won Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama (Gregory Peck), Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein), and Best Film for Promoting International Understanding (to director Robert Mulligan).

When released, To Kill a Mockingbird was an overwhelming critical and popular success, earning more than 10 times its budget in 1962. To Kill a Mockingbird has gone on to become a classic, with the film listed 25th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2007 list) [#34 on the 1998 list], and taking the top spot in AFI’s Top 10 Courtroom Dramas. Gregory Peck’s character Atticus Finch reigns as AFI’s 100 Greatest Heroes.

Everyone should see this film, though children under 12 may need to be cautioned about the subject matter and the language as this film deals openly with rape, clearly suggests incest, and uses language appropriate to the time and place of its story.

Be sure to watch the black-and-white version of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the colorized one: those who colorized it obviously completely missed the symbolism behind the story’s being filmed in black-and-white instead of in color. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Filed under Actors, Books, Classic Films, Classics, Coming of Age Stories, Crime Drama, Drama, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Historical Drama, Movies/Films, No Spoilers Review, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Rape, Review, Review/No Spoilers, Sexual Abuse, Sexual Violence, Violence

Knick, Knack, Paddy Whack, Give the Doc a Smack: Cinemax’s THE KNICK

Cinemax’s newest series The Knick, created by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Clive Owen, began its first episode with a graphic intensity that stunned many viewers. Subsequent episodes have promised many conflicts in the premise of a (fictionalized) privately funded Knickerbocker Hospital, located in one of the poorer neighborhoods of 1900s New York, while its philanthropist sponsors force Chief Surgeon John Thackeray (Clive Owen) to “integrate” the staff by hiring an eminently trained black surgeon Algernon Edwards (André Holland) as his Assistant Chief Surgeon. Though the show still has some weaknesses so far, its strengths make it one of the best dramas in years, setting it right next to the debut season of HBOs True Detective and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful with its writing, acting, and setting.

Warning: Spoilers Abound

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Weaknesses

  • Some of the “injustices” and inequalities suffered by black Assistant Chief Surgeon Dr. Edwards are simply fictionally unbelievable, given the show’s premise. Yes, the show is set only 35 years after the Civil War, and racism is rampant. (That still hasn’t changed in this country.) But to have Dr. Edwards’ office in the windowless basement and not have his egregiously wealthy sponsor’s daughter Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) complain vociferously about it and insist that he be given a proper office is simply not realistic. After all, if the Robertson family stopped installing the electricity when Thackeray didn’t want to hire Edwards in the first place,  she would not allow him to be in the basement with the coal-men without getting angry about it. Seems odd that Dr. Edwards tolerates that arrangement, too.

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  • While several of the other characters, including minor ones, are being developed, the “star” surgeon, Dr. Thackeray remains relatively one-dimensional. Okay, so he had a past love interest. He uses cocaine and opium, both of which were legal at the time. He’s sarcastic and impatient. Other than that, however, he’s one of the least rounded characters in the show, and that’s just downright disappointing. We never see him anywhere except in the hospital and in the opium den, whereas we know more about the Hospital Director Barrow (Jeremy Bobb)’s private life than we do about Dr. Thackeray’s.

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  • Additionally, Dr. Thackeray is so addicted to cocaine that all his veins in his arms, feet, and ankles have collapsed, forcing him to inject the drug between his toes (except for the episode 1 scene where Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) injects it, under his instructions, into his urethral artery), and he seems to go to Chinatown to the opium den every night after his shift, yet he’s still highly functional. And he has too much weight on him: an addict using as much cocaine as Thackeray is supposedly using would have no appetite and would lose a noticeable amount of weight. (Even alcoholics lose so much weight that they look like AIDS victims.) Thackeray doesn’t even have dark circles under his eyes. His hair’s never even messed up, though he seems to come directly to work from the opium den, and return there right after work.

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  • Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) is even less developed than Thackeray, though episode 4 began foreshadowing her love interest in him (or, rather, in her romanticized vision of him, since he was pretty brutal to her in episode 1). Granted, she’s one of the minor characters thus far, but some of the other minor characters, like Sr. Harriet (Cara Seymour) and ambulance driver Cleary (Chris Sullivan), are being intensely developed. Why not this nurse, who seems to be the only one at the Knick with a name?
  • Some of the contrasts between poor/wealthy, white/black in episode 2 were too heavy-handed. Dr. Edwards living in a tenement or a hotel of some sort where everyone shares the same bathroom, for example, while his own mother and father — servants of the hospital’s sponsor, shipping tycoon Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines) — live at his mansion was ludicrous. What, they can’t pay this brilliant surgeon trained in the finest European institutes enough of a salary that he could have his own apartment? Setting his morning routine with a bunch of ruffians spoiling for a fight with a black man in “Paris shoes” against Cornelia’s pampered, affluent one was an insult to viewers.

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  • Hair and makeup can’t seem to decide if Dr. Thackeray has straight, black hair, or wavy/curly dark brown hair. Maybe this seems really picky, but it’s distracting, and anything that distracts a viewer from the story pulls him out of its fictional world.

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Strengths

  • The show’s handling of racism is mostly spot-on. Except for the heavy-handed scenes mentioned earlier, the racism is subtle and constant. Captain August Robertson tells a guest at Cornelia’s engagement party that Dr. Edwards is the “finest Negro surgeon” in the city. Mrs. Robertson greets Edwards at that party, then asks, “Are you here to see your mother [the Cook]? She’s in the back.” Some characters won’t shake hands with him. Thackeray tolerates — and even jokes about it — when Edwards’ major antagonist, Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) sucker-punches him during a life-and-death surgical procedure. Dr. Gallinger tells his wife that the hospital staff’s “nickname” for Edwards is “Dr. Darkie” and she giggles before saying that it’s not appropriate/professional/nice, her laugh belying her spoken objection. Those subtle presentations of racism are very effective, as are actor André Holland’s facial expressions when they happen.

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  • Thackeray’s constant sarcasm as well as his incredibly high opinion of himself. It seems like such a character should be obnoxious, but Clive Owen pulls it off in every single scene. He even makes the character amusing. Good acting at its best.

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  • The nature, relationship, and conflicts between Sr. Harriet (Cara Seymour) and ambulance driver Cleary (Chris Sullivan) are some of the strongest in the show. These two minor characters are heading for Best Supporting Actor Awards, that’s how powerful their performances are. Humorous, angry, mocking, and suspicious colleagues turned unwilling allies, the two have progressed from a playful teasing relationship to a coercive one involving extortion and dangerous secrets. The first time Cleary addressed Sr. Harriet as “Harry,” I laughed aloud while, at the same time, knowing that something very bad was about to happen.

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  • The special effects. The pigs Dr. Thackeray and others practice surgical procedures on because the Knicks’ Director Barrow is stealing bodies to sell them to other institutions. Beating hearts during open-heart surgery. Patients catching fire after electricity is installed and used during surgery for the first time. Thackeray putting his hands into a woman’s abdomen in an attempt to retrieve her unborn child which has migrated outside the ruptured uterus. Thackeray massaging a dead woman’s heart by putting his bare hands inside her chest cavity, which he has cut open after her death for this express experiment, to test his theory about its causing a pulse. The former lover of Dr. Thackeray who contracted syphilis from her husband and has no nose. All of it is just gory and realistic and gruesome and makes me really grateful I’m not a surgical patient at the Knick in 1900.

  • The research behind the show, which includes actual archival photos of rare and deforming medical conditions (which Cleary is  joking about as the other doctors are breaking-and-entering in order to steal a journal from a surgeon to learn a new procedure rather than ask the black surgeon Edwards about it).

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  • Dr. Edwards finally became a man who stood his ground in episode 4, earning the beginning of Thackeray’s grudging albeit mocking respect, when Dr. Edwards refused to “talk the surgeons through” the next step in a heart aneurysm-repair procedure, which he’d helped pioneer.
  • The original music. Electronic and eerie and compelling.

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  • The set, inside and outside the hospital,  including the rat-baiting scene in the basement of the bar. Very impressive. As good as the show’s special effects.

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  • The doctors’ shoes. Those have to be historically accurate. Otherwise, they’d be too bizarre to be realistic. And Dr. Thackeray mostly wears his without socks, so he can inject the cocaine between his toes more quickly.
  • The hint of an attraction and a possible relationship between wealthy tycoon Captain August Robertson’s daughter Cornelia and the “best Negro doctor” in the city. Oh, please, oh, please, oh, please… Let’s be really brave.

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If you aren’t watching Cinemax’s The Knick (new episodes Fridays 8p.m. ET, with reruns all week long), you’re missing one of the finest and most compelling dramas since HBOs Deadwood.

And that show can’t be beat.

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