The Films of Robert Mulligan, Part 1

As part of the 100th Anniversary of Universal Pictures, the studio is remastering a series of classic library titles for Blu-Ray, including a 50th Anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which comes out today. The movie has become embedded in American culture, but the quiet craftsman behind the adaptation has been largely forgotten. Over the next four weeks I will be doing an exhaustive (but hopefully not exhausting) film-by-film analysis of Robert Mulligan’s directing career. You have Kent Jones to blame for this, who organized the revelatory 2009 retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in which I discovered Mulligan’s masterful use of point-of-view and his innate, deeply affecting sympathy for society’s outsiders. He was trained in television like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, but his elegant style and temperament is straight out of the old studio system. Today I’ll cover his work from Fear Strikes Out (1957) through To Kill A Mockingbird (1962).

Robert Mulligan was born in the Bronx on August 23rd, 1925. After Navy service in WWII and completing a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University, Mulligan got a job as a messenger with CBS. He climbed the ladder to become a television director, most prolifically for “Suspense” (1949 – 1954), a live half-hour drama for which he directed 29 episodes (a few of which are viewable on YouTube: “Remember Me“, “The Crooked Frame” and “Woman in Love“). In 1957 Mulligan made his first theatrical feature, Fear Strikes Out, an adaptation of Boston Red Sox center-fielder Jimmy Piersall’s memoir. It was the first of seven films that Mulligan would make with producer (and later director) Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View), who also hailed from the Bronx.

In the first of Mulligan’s neurotic protagonists, Fear Strikes Out (1957) stars Anthony Perkins as Piersall, an insecure outfielder who has a nervous breakdown soon after getting called up to the majors. After a year of therapy, and dealing with the excessive pressure pinned on him by his striving father (Karl Malden), Piersall returns to the bigs. He ended up playing parts of 17 years in the league, with two All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves to his credit (here is his Baseball Reference page). Paramount paid a modest $50,000 to secure the rights to Piersall’s pop-psych bestseller, with a production budget of just under a million dollars.

Production head Don Hartman assigned his old assistant Pakula to produce and Mulligan to direct, both first-timers. It is an assured debut for both, shot B&W in the VistaVision process (Paramount’s widescreen competitor to CinemaScope) by veteran DP Haskell Boggs (The Furies, The Geisha Boy).  The live TV shows in which Mulligan cut his teeth used a very mobile camera to create different set-ups on the fly, and Mulligan carries this over to Fear Strikes Out. In one striking sequence, the Piersall family’s poverty is expressed in a few wordless shots. Karl Malden walks inside their spartan home (that overlooks a baking factory), exchanging a bitter look with his wife. Then the camera follows as he walks to the sink, and starts doing the dishes. Mulligan pushes the camera closer to their backs until he finally starts speaking, and it becomes clear he had lost his job, equally embarrassed to tell the camera as his wife.

Anthony Perkins presents another wounded bird for his remarkable menagerie of neurotics, his Piersall a jangly-limbed obsessive who’d rather practice his slide than talk to girls. As Piersall’s world constricts to the one on the field, and his state-of-mind is determined by his batting average, Perkins taps into his inner psycho and rips out a freak-out more outsized than Norman Bates’ sneer. After a slump-busting home-run, Piersall races to the stands behind home plate, and in a full-throated roar asks a dumbstruck Malden if that was good enough, screaming the question until his body convulses into a spastic fit. Francois Truffaut was a young admirer, calling it one of the best of the year, describing it as a “bitter and disillusioned film that doesn’t make you want to live in America. But if there were French directors as lucid and talented as Mulligan…the image of our country on the screen would be a bit less simplified.”

The Rat Race (1960) is not likely to lead anyone to book an American vacation either. The first of two star vehicles Mulligan made with Tony Curtis, it an adaptation of a Garson Kanin play (again made for Paramount), for which Kanin also wrote the script. Curtis is a Midwestern jazz musician who moves to NYC hoping to join a big band, auditioning for the likes of Gerry Mulligan. Debbie Reynolds is his disillusioned roommate, her dreams of modeling already diminished into a job as a taxi dancer who endures harassment from her pervy boss (a menacingly seedy turn by Don Rickles). It’s a dark romantic comedy, with laughs derived from robbery, poverty and desperation. It is another portrayal of outsiders adapting to an antagonistic society, with Curtis and Reynolds forming a shell of defense through their rapport of wisecracking flirtation. Reynolds is especially affecting as a worn-down cynic in one of her first purely dramatic performances. Mulligan does seem hamstrung by the simple studio sets, making do with the materials of what is little more than a filmed play, but it is still a tough, affecting little farce.

Mulligan and Curtis moved to Universal to make The Great Impostor (1961), a comedy based on the true story of Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr., a talented con man who passed himself off as a doctor, a warden and a monk. Mulligan and screenwriter Liam O’Brien present Ferdinand as another disillusioned kid, using con-games and play-acting to deny the reality of his impoverished upbringing. While in the army, Ferdinand realizes he can’t get a commission because he lacks a high-school diploma, so he forges a whole illustrious educational career, and he’s off to the multiple-identity races.  While the characters of Fear Strikes Out and The Rat Race find ways to defend themselves from reality (through therapy or love), Ferdinand simply decides to ignore it.

The tone ranges wildly, from madcap farce (like the Novacane overdose teeth-pulling session) to sober melodrama (a prison riot). Curtis is an able chameleonic blank, turning off the charisma spout and turning on the sobriety where necessary.  Mulligan does a workmanlike job with this star vehicle, although unwisely tries to goose the antics with punchline zoom-ins that over emphasize jokes that work well enough on their own. The Great Impostor is a winning trifle that is major in its own way, for it was the first time Mulligan worked with legendary art director Henry Bumstead (Vertigo). A relentless hard-worker and polymath, Mulligan told Bumstead biographer Andrew Horton that the art director “knew infinitely more about the practical, nuts and bolts business of putting a story on camera than you did”. Bumstead had to quickly erect sets for all of Ferdinand’s professions, the most memorable being the arches of the Holy Cross monastery, which seeming recede infinitely into the distance, the sense of divine infinity nicely contrasting with Ferdinand’s get-identity-quick schemes. They would collaborate four more times, culminating in Bumstead winning an Oscar for his work on To Kill a Mockingbird.

The duo would work together again for Universal on Come September (1961) the first of two big-budget spectacles they would make starring Rock Hudson. This one is a frothy generation-gap comedy in which stinking rich capitalist Hudson sees his Italian mistress Gina Lollobrigida every September at his villa in Portofino. Unbeknownst to him, the villa’s caretaker turns the estate into a hotel the rest of the year. So when Hudson shows up unannounced for a summer dalliance, his place is stuffed with a busload of rebellious American teens in heat, including Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin.

Rock Hudson is presented as pretty adolescent himself, secretly sketching a scantily clad woman at a business meeting and expecting Lollobrigida to to be charmed by the scraps of attention he gives her. Considering that he is Rock Hudson, and wears form-fitting white suits, this works for a time, although eventually she rebels and reveals him to be the sniveling juvenile he really is.

Shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor by William H. Daniels (Some Came Running), the frame oozes with bright daubs of color to offset Hudson’s dazzling whiteness, which Lollobrigida obliterates in whirling dervish performance of screwball mania and lithe sexual intensity (her character’s last name is Fellini – coincidence?). Anytime she’s off-screen the pace lags, especially with the milquetoast Darin-Dee couple, but thankfully her absences are brief.

Alas, The Spiral Road (1962) is sans Lollobrigida, and is a long slog at 145 minutes without her. An awkward combination of medical soap opera and psychological thriller, it is about an atheistic young doctor who travels to Indonesia to learn about the containment of leprosy, and then shifts into a nonsensical adventure tale when he pursues (and is driven mad by) a voodoo medicine man. It is adapted from the novel of the same name by Jan de Hartog, and not even an early score from Jerry Goldsmith, cinematography from Russell Harlan (Gun Crazy) and a wily performance from Burl Ives (channeling his wacko survivalist routine from Wind Across the Everglades) can save it from its paternalistic moralizing and slack pacing.

By the time The Spiral Road was released in August of 1962, Mulligan had already shot To Kill a Mockingbird, which received its official premiere in Los Angeles on Christmas Day. Russell Harlan returns as DP, Henry Bumstead as art director and Alan J. Pakula as producer, with whom Mulligan had formed Pakula-Mulligan Productions, Inc. Graced with his finest script to date by Horton Foote, and very comfortable with his regular group of collaborators, Mulligan was free to experiment with his visual style, tinkering with subjective camera-positions for the first time since Fear Strikes Out, a technique he would hone the rest of his career.

After the credit sequence, Mulligan lays out the geography of a small Alabama street. In an elaborate crane shot, which starts high in the tree branches, the camera lowers to eye level and travels left along the turn in a road, before getting distracted by a horse and gliding back to the right. It is as if an impatient eye was diverted by the stout animal, and right as if on cue, Scout (Mary Badham) swings from one of those same tree branches off-screen right into the edge of the frame, announcing herself as the enunciating force of the movie.

Mulligan experimented with POV shots in Fear Strikes Out, memorably so in an aural hallucination of crowd noise, but with To Kill a Mockingbird he structures the whole movie around the technique (with a few necessary cheats in the courtroom scene). The movie exerts such an emotional pull because Mulligan masks the adult world from Scout’s view, choosing low-angles that peer half-obscured truths that she can not yet process. She is shown peeping into the courtroom (with no matching counter-shot), staring over a fence at the Radley home, which is lit like a haunted house of a child’s imagination, and when they get close, Boo Radley’s shadow passes over them like Nosferatu’s when he climbs the stairs – Scout and Jem’s own Universal horror movie.

When societal horrors come to the fore, and Atticus reveals the nature of his case, the POV subtly shifts, from a birds’ eye view of Scout in the balcony to Atticus’ eye-level view down on the courtroom floor. This shift in POV matches Scout’s maturation, that her stubbornly gained knowledge of life’s real terrors are often more awful than her imagination. It is a beautiful, trembling film, that all of the cast and crew bring to shuddering life, highlighted by Gregory Peck’s performance of exhausted virtue, each of his dignified acts becoming more wearying with age.

The Universal Blu-Ray is predictably pristine, the funereal grays of Harlan’s cinematography popping out in granular detail. This will likely be the only Robert Mulligan film to make the leap to HD, but it is only the beginning of his stylistic experimentation with the subjective camera – he uses it to brilliant ends in horror (The Other), gangster movies (The Nickel Ride) and coming-of-age tales (The Man in the Moon). Next week I’ll look at the rest of his films from the 60s, from Love With the Proper Stranger (’63) through The Stalking Moon (’68).

0 Response The Films of Robert Mulligan, Part 1
Posted By Mark Mayerson : January 31, 2012 2:19 pm

It’s quite amazing that Mulligan was born after World War II and yet managed to serve in the Navy. His mother was clearly a patriot.

Posted By Mark Mayerson : January 31, 2012 2:19 pm

It’s quite amazing that Mulligan was born after World War II and yet managed to serve in the Navy. His mother was clearly a patriot.

Posted By Kingrat : January 31, 2012 2:39 pm

Thank you for this survey of Mulligan. I’d never had a grasp of his career as a whole, and am looking forward to the other installments. THE SPIRAL ROAD had always sounded interesting; too bad it’s not an unknown gem.

Posted By Kingrat : January 31, 2012 2:39 pm

Thank you for this survey of Mulligan. I’d never had a grasp of his career as a whole, and am looking forward to the other installments. THE SPIRAL ROAD had always sounded interesting; too bad it’s not an unknown gem.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 31, 2012 3:16 pm

Yes Mark, an egregious typo on my part. He was born in 1925, not ’45. I’ve made the fix.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 31, 2012 3:16 pm

Yes Mark, an egregious typo on my part. He was born in 1925, not ’45. I’ve made the fix.

Posted By Juana Maria : January 31, 2012 5:55 pm

My mom and I watched “To Kill a Mockingbird” on TCM:the Essentials,Jr. I was amazing, the black & white scenery,the story and the great acting. Especially the little children, my Mom says they deserved Oscars for their work in that film! I told her it was their very first film,the boy and girl who are Jim and Scout. Oh, they are so cute. I have to say the only person I think that doesn’t fit the cast is William Windom because I am accustomed to him being the doctor in Cabot Cove,Maine on “Murder She Wrote”. I grew up watching that show on TV, so for me most of the actors on that show I will always indentify them with their TV characters names and personas. thanks for the lovely article. Keep up the good work.

Posted By Juana Maria : January 31, 2012 5:55 pm

My mom and I watched “To Kill a Mockingbird” on TCM:the Essentials,Jr. I was amazing, the black & white scenery,the story and the great acting. Especially the little children, my Mom says they deserved Oscars for their work in that film! I told her it was their very first film,the boy and girl who are Jim and Scout. Oh, they are so cute. I have to say the only person I think that doesn’t fit the cast is William Windom because I am accustomed to him being the doctor in Cabot Cove,Maine on “Murder She Wrote”. I grew up watching that show on TV, so for me most of the actors on that show I will always indentify them with their TV characters names and personas. thanks for the lovely article. Keep up the good work.

Posted By swac : January 31, 2012 6:27 pm

Looking forward to this series, recently watched and enjoyed THE STALKING MOON, so I’ll be curious to see your thoughts on that.

I’ve only ever caught THE GREAT IMPOSTER in bits and pieces, but I’d like to see it completely, partly because Ferdinand Demara spent some time here in Halifax, when he came up from Maine to join the Canadian Navy posing as a doctor, and managed to save some lives while serving as a surgeon on the HMCS Cayuga during the Korean War. (Unfortunately his exploits wound up in the Canadian newspapers, where they were read by the real doctor, who was practicing in nearby New Brunswick.)

Posted By swac : January 31, 2012 6:27 pm

Looking forward to this series, recently watched and enjoyed THE STALKING MOON, so I’ll be curious to see your thoughts on that.

I’ve only ever caught THE GREAT IMPOSTER in bits and pieces, but I’d like to see it completely, partly because Ferdinand Demara spent some time here in Halifax, when he came up from Maine to join the Canadian Navy posing as a doctor, and managed to save some lives while serving as a surgeon on the HMCS Cayuga during the Korean War. (Unfortunately his exploits wound up in the Canadian newspapers, where they were read by the real doctor, who was practicing in nearby New Brunswick.)

Posted By Juana Maria : January 31, 2012 6:37 pm

Swac:I too have seen “The Stalking Moon”! It’s an unusal film, more like a horror picture than your average Western. Both “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Stalking Moon” star Gregory Peck, who is one of my favorite actors. I have seen most of the movies he ever made. Thanks to a large degree to TCM, and a little to AMC. Hey, this blog is getting better all the time. Thanks again!

Posted By Juana Maria : January 31, 2012 6:37 pm

Swac:I too have seen “The Stalking Moon”! It’s an unusal film, more like a horror picture than your average Western. Both “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Stalking Moon” star Gregory Peck, who is one of my favorite actors. I have seen most of the movies he ever made. Thanks to a large degree to TCM, and a little to AMC. Hey, this blog is getting better all the time. Thanks again!

Posted By swac : January 31, 2012 6:37 pm

Also looking forward to the new DVD of THE NICKEL RIDE (paired with Frankenheimer’s 99 44/100% DEAD). I’ll probably read about it here (and on DVD Savant) before I get a chance to actually see it for myself.

Posted By swac : January 31, 2012 6:37 pm

Also looking forward to the new DVD of THE NICKEL RIDE (paired with Frankenheimer’s 99 44/100% DEAD). I’ll probably read about it here (and on DVD Savant) before I get a chance to actually see it for myself.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 1, 2012 12:51 am

I absolutely love To Kill a Mockingbird. I put off liking it for so many years due to my forced scholastic ingestion of it. I’m a rebel. When I eventually sat down to watch it for myself I felt like an idiot for blowing it off for so long.

Also, without even knowing it, I figured that The Other and To Kill a Mockingbird were both directed by the same man. They feel very similar somehow. I guess that Mulligan was just wonderful with child actors in rural settings.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 1, 2012 12:51 am

I absolutely love To Kill a Mockingbird. I put off liking it for so many years due to my forced scholastic ingestion of it. I’m a rebel. When I eventually sat down to watch it for myself I felt like an idiot for blowing it off for so long.

Also, without even knowing it, I figured that The Other and To Kill a Mockingbird were both directed by the same man. They feel very similar somehow. I guess that Mulligan was just wonderful with child actors in rural settings.

Posted By Adam Zanzie : February 1, 2012 2:07 am

Robert, a friend of mine just alerted me to this Mulligan retrospective of yours, and I cannot tell you how excited I am! It’s always a joy when somebody in the blogosphere awakens to the genius of Mulligan and wants to bring his work back into the limelight. I actually didn’t officially become a fan until late 2008, when I saw The Other for the first time. I had been an admirer of both To Kill A Mockingbird and Same Time, Next Year for many years, but The Other was the one that did it for me. Then Mulligan died two months later :(

But I’ve been exploring his work ever since then, and it’s amazing how many great, forgotten gems there are in his career to come across. Fear Strikes Out is simply one of the most extraordinary debuts of any American director. That high-angle shot (at the end) of Jimmy looking down at his father, no longer his puppet, is astonishing, to say the least. Truffaut’s comments about the movie are pure gold.

Now, I watched Come September for the first time recently and found it to be incredibly obnoxious, to tell you the truth. It has this heavy studio feel that tarnishes whatever merits it might have had; Mulligan obviously did it for the money and nothing else. Hudson and Lollobrigida are fine, and so are Darin and Dee (actually, in Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea — which recreates scenes from Come September — the actor Andrew Laws can be seen in the background “directing” Spacey; he’s clearly supposed to be Mulligan himself). But the movie misses a great opportunity to comment on the gaps between generations, between the kids of the 50′s and the adults of the 40′s. Although the middle section (with Hudson “chaperoning” all the kids) is undoubtedly interesting, the rest of the movie feels downright lame; the sequence where Hudson is chasing Lollobrigida’s car while being assaulted by chickens in cages is too idiotic for words. That Mulligan found his footing shortly afterwards is a miracle, to say the least, because if something like Come September were attempted by Hollywood today it would probably be like one of those horrendous Katherine Heigl vehicles.

To Kill A Mockingbird is, for me, a “flawed great film.” I love it, but I also sort of agree with Ebert’s complaints that the final act of the movie (when the fate of Tom Robinson is pushed aside just so that Atticus’ heroism can be congratulated, and when Bob Ewell winds up getting his compeuppance a) hasn’t aged very well. Much of this can be blamed on Harper Lee’s book of course, but this criticism by Matt Zoller Seitz is pretty dead-on: “Think about how Lee’s universe contorts itself to ensure that the wicked are punished anyway (Halloween costume; knife), suggesting that there’s a higher law that will eventually hold everyone accountable (a fine lesson if you’re devout, but what if you’re not?).”

Still, I can’t help but love the movie despite those maddening flaws. Peck is great, the story is compelling, and Mulligan’s direction is flawless. It’s a wonderful movie, if less than perfect.

Interestingly, I got to meet Mary Badham at a St. Louis community college last year, and I was bold enough to ask her why Mulligan stopped directing after 1991. She didn’t seem to know why (“I think he just done with the business and wanted to live a quiet life,”), but it was worth a try. Maybe someday we’ll find out the exact reason why, once somebody writes a book about him.

Looking forward to your coverage of Mulligan’s later 60′s output, particularly Up the Down Staircase and ESPECIALLY The Stalking Moon, which is — for my money — the first full-fledged masterpiece of his career.

Posted By Adam Zanzie : February 1, 2012 2:07 am

Robert, a friend of mine just alerted me to this Mulligan retrospective of yours, and I cannot tell you how excited I am! It’s always a joy when somebody in the blogosphere awakens to the genius of Mulligan and wants to bring his work back into the limelight. I actually didn’t officially become a fan until late 2008, when I saw The Other for the first time. I had been an admirer of both To Kill A Mockingbird and Same Time, Next Year for many years, but The Other was the one that did it for me. Then Mulligan died two months later :(

But I’ve been exploring his work ever since then, and it’s amazing how many great, forgotten gems there are in his career to come across. Fear Strikes Out is simply one of the most extraordinary debuts of any American director. That high-angle shot (at the end) of Jimmy looking down at his father, no longer his puppet, is astonishing, to say the least. Truffaut’s comments about the movie are pure gold.

Now, I watched Come September for the first time recently and found it to be incredibly obnoxious, to tell you the truth. It has this heavy studio feel that tarnishes whatever merits it might have had; Mulligan obviously did it for the money and nothing else. Hudson and Lollobrigida are fine, and so are Darin and Dee (actually, in Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea — which recreates scenes from Come September — the actor Andrew Laws can be seen in the background “directing” Spacey; he’s clearly supposed to be Mulligan himself). But the movie misses a great opportunity to comment on the gaps between generations, between the kids of the 50′s and the adults of the 40′s. Although the middle section (with Hudson “chaperoning” all the kids) is undoubtedly interesting, the rest of the movie feels downright lame; the sequence where Hudson is chasing Lollobrigida’s car while being assaulted by chickens in cages is too idiotic for words. That Mulligan found his footing shortly afterwards is a miracle, to say the least, because if something like Come September were attempted by Hollywood today it would probably be like one of those horrendous Katherine Heigl vehicles.

To Kill A Mockingbird is, for me, a “flawed great film.” I love it, but I also sort of agree with Ebert’s complaints that the final act of the movie (when the fate of Tom Robinson is pushed aside just so that Atticus’ heroism can be congratulated, and when Bob Ewell winds up getting his compeuppance a) hasn’t aged very well. Much of this can be blamed on Harper Lee’s book of course, but this criticism by Matt Zoller Seitz is pretty dead-on: “Think about how Lee’s universe contorts itself to ensure that the wicked are punished anyway (Halloween costume; knife), suggesting that there’s a higher law that will eventually hold everyone accountable (a fine lesson if you’re devout, but what if you’re not?).”

Still, I can’t help but love the movie despite those maddening flaws. Peck is great, the story is compelling, and Mulligan’s direction is flawless. It’s a wonderful movie, if less than perfect.

Interestingly, I got to meet Mary Badham at a St. Louis community college last year, and I was bold enough to ask her why Mulligan stopped directing after 1991. She didn’t seem to know why (“I think he just done with the business and wanted to live a quiet life,”), but it was worth a try. Maybe someday we’ll find out the exact reason why, once somebody writes a book about him.

Looking forward to your coverage of Mulligan’s later 60′s output, particularly Up the Down Staircase and ESPECIALLY The Stalking Moon, which is — for my money — the first full-fledged masterpiece of his career.

Posted By Adam Zanzie : February 1, 2012 2:12 am

Robert, a friend of mine just alerted me to this Mulligan retrospective of yours, and I cannot tell you how excited I am! It’s always a joy when somebody in the blogosphere awakens to the genius of Mulligan and wants to bring his work back into the limelight. I actually didn’t officially become a fan until late 2008, when I saw The Other for the first time. I had been an admirer of both To Kill A Mockingbird and Same Time, Next Year for many years, but The Other was the one that did it for me. Then Mulligan died two months later :(

But I’ve been exploring his work ever since then, and it’s amazing how many great, forgotten gems there are in his career to come across. Fear Strikes Out is simply one of the most extraordinary debuts of any American director. That high-angle shot (at the end) of Jimmy looking down at his father, no longer his puppet, is astonishing, to say the least. Truffaut’s comments about the movie are pure gold.

Now, I watched Come September for the first time recently and found it to be incredibly obnoxious, to tell you the truth. It has this heavy studio feel that tarnishes whatever merits it might have had; Mulligan obviously did it for the money and nothing else. Hudson and Lollobrigida are fine, and so are Darin and Dee (actually, in Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea — which recreates scenes from Come September — the actor Andrew Laws can be seen in the background “directing” Spacey; he’s clearly supposed to be Mulligan himself). But the movie misses a great opportunity to comment on the gaps between generations, between the kids of the 50′s and the adults of the 40′s. Although the middle section (with Hudson “chaperoning” all the kids) is undoubtedly interesting, the rest of the movie feels downright lame; the sequence where Hudson is chasing Lollobrigida’s car while being assaulted by chickens in cages is too idiotic for words. That Mulligan found his footing shortly afterwards is a miracle, to say the least, because if something like Come September were attempted by Hollywood today it would probably be like one of those horrendous Katherine Heigl vehicles.

To Kill A Mockingbird is, for me, a “flawed great film.” I love it, but I also sort of agree with Ebert’s complaints about the brain-damaged final act of the movie: Tom Robinson is pushed aside so that Atticus’ heroism can be congratulated, and Bob Ewell winds up getting a rather arbitrary comeuppance. Much of this can be blamed on Harper Lee’s book, of course, but I believe Matt Zoller Seitz is onto something when he writes:

“Think about how Lee’s universe contorts itself to ensure that the wicked are punished anyway (Halloween costume; knife), suggesting that there’s a higher law that will eventually hold everyone accountable (a fine lesson if you’re devout, but what if you’re not?).”

Still, I can’t help but love the movie despite those maddening shortcomings. Peck is great, the story remains compelling, and Mulligan’s direction is flawless. It’s a wonderful but annoyingly imperfect movie.

Interestingly, I got to meet Mary Badham at a St. Louis community college last year, and I was bold enough to ask her why Mulligan stopped directing after 1991. She didn’t seem to know why (“I think he just done with the business and wanted to live a quiet life,”), but maybe someday the reason will come out. Might have to wait until somebody writes a book about him.

Looking forward to your coverage of Mulligan’s later 60′s output, particularly Up the Down Staircase and ESPECIALLY The Stalking Moon, which is — for my money — the first full-fledged masterpiece of his career.

Posted By Adam Zanzie : February 1, 2012 2:12 am

Robert, a friend of mine just alerted me to this Mulligan retrospective of yours, and I cannot tell you how excited I am! It’s always a joy when somebody in the blogosphere awakens to the genius of Mulligan and wants to bring his work back into the limelight. I actually didn’t officially become a fan until late 2008, when I saw The Other for the first time. I had been an admirer of both To Kill A Mockingbird and Same Time, Next Year for many years, but The Other was the one that did it for me. Then Mulligan died two months later :(

But I’ve been exploring his work ever since then, and it’s amazing how many great, forgotten gems there are in his career to come across. Fear Strikes Out is simply one of the most extraordinary debuts of any American director. That high-angle shot (at the end) of Jimmy looking down at his father, no longer his puppet, is astonishing, to say the least. Truffaut’s comments about the movie are pure gold.

Now, I watched Come September for the first time recently and found it to be incredibly obnoxious, to tell you the truth. It has this heavy studio feel that tarnishes whatever merits it might have had; Mulligan obviously did it for the money and nothing else. Hudson and Lollobrigida are fine, and so are Darin and Dee (actually, in Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea — which recreates scenes from Come September — the actor Andrew Laws can be seen in the background “directing” Spacey; he’s clearly supposed to be Mulligan himself). But the movie misses a great opportunity to comment on the gaps between generations, between the kids of the 50′s and the adults of the 40′s. Although the middle section (with Hudson “chaperoning” all the kids) is undoubtedly interesting, the rest of the movie feels downright lame; the sequence where Hudson is chasing Lollobrigida’s car while being assaulted by chickens in cages is too idiotic for words. That Mulligan found his footing shortly afterwards is a miracle, to say the least, because if something like Come September were attempted by Hollywood today it would probably be like one of those horrendous Katherine Heigl vehicles.

To Kill A Mockingbird is, for me, a “flawed great film.” I love it, but I also sort of agree with Ebert’s complaints about the brain-damaged final act of the movie: Tom Robinson is pushed aside so that Atticus’ heroism can be congratulated, and Bob Ewell winds up getting a rather arbitrary comeuppance. Much of this can be blamed on Harper Lee’s book, of course, but I believe Matt Zoller Seitz is onto something when he writes:

“Think about how Lee’s universe contorts itself to ensure that the wicked are punished anyway (Halloween costume; knife), suggesting that there’s a higher law that will eventually hold everyone accountable (a fine lesson if you’re devout, but what if you’re not?).”

Still, I can’t help but love the movie despite those maddening shortcomings. Peck is great, the story remains compelling, and Mulligan’s direction is flawless. It’s a wonderful but annoyingly imperfect movie.

Interestingly, I got to meet Mary Badham at a St. Louis community college last year, and I was bold enough to ask her why Mulligan stopped directing after 1991. She didn’t seem to know why (“I think he just done with the business and wanted to live a quiet life,”), but maybe someday the reason will come out. Might have to wait until somebody writes a book about him.

Looking forward to your coverage of Mulligan’s later 60′s output, particularly Up the Down Staircase and ESPECIALLY The Stalking Moon, which is — for my money — the first full-fledged masterpiece of his career.

Posted By Pamela Porter : February 1, 2012 12:58 pm

Up The Down Staircase is another on my list, but I’ve given up all hope.

P~

Posted By Pamela Porter : February 1, 2012 12:58 pm

Up The Down Staircase is another on my list, but I’ve given up all hope.

P~

Posted By Adam Zanzie : February 1, 2012 4:58 pm

Gaaa, I accidentally posted my comment twice. Sorry!

Posted By Adam Zanzie : February 1, 2012 4:58 pm

Gaaa, I accidentally posted my comment twice. Sorry!

Posted By Pamela Porter : February 1, 2012 9:00 pm

Cancel that wish – my dream just came true!

Posted By Pamela Porter : February 1, 2012 9:00 pm

Cancel that wish – my dream just came true!

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 2, 2012 11:07 am

No worries Adam, doubling thoughtful comments are encouraged. While COME SEPTEMBER is an impersonal star vehicle, I still found it charming, especially the performance of Lollobrigida.

And I can’t disagree more with both Ebert and MZS about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I don’t think the film is about Atticus’ heroism, but about his children’s impressions of that heroism, which to me is an important distinction. Tom Robinson is viewed through the childrens’ perspective, and therefore can’t take a larger role, since the film can only show what the children see.

I find MZS’s argument is off the mark. He creates a straw man, that somehow the film is about divine retribution, and then knocks it down. To me he ignores what is actually happening on the screen, that is, how children grow up and are disillusioned (Atticus does NOT save Tom Robinson), which Mulligan beautifully captures in his use of the subjective camera.

Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, and I hope you keep reading the series. THE STALKING MOON is amazing, and I look forward to your comments on it next week.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 2, 2012 11:07 am

No worries Adam, doubling thoughtful comments are encouraged. While COME SEPTEMBER is an impersonal star vehicle, I still found it charming, especially the performance of Lollobrigida.

And I can’t disagree more with both Ebert and MZS about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I don’t think the film is about Atticus’ heroism, but about his children’s impressions of that heroism, which to me is an important distinction. Tom Robinson is viewed through the childrens’ perspective, and therefore can’t take a larger role, since the film can only show what the children see.

I find MZS’s argument is off the mark. He creates a straw man, that somehow the film is about divine retribution, and then knocks it down. To me he ignores what is actually happening on the screen, that is, how children grow up and are disillusioned (Atticus does NOT save Tom Robinson), which Mulligan beautifully captures in his use of the subjective camera.

Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, and I hope you keep reading the series. THE STALKING MOON is amazing, and I look forward to your comments on it next week.

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – The Films of Robert Mulligan, Part 2 : February 7, 2012 11:31 am

[...] This is Part Two of a four-part series that looks at the career of director Robert Mulligan. You can find Part One here. [...]

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – The Films of Robert Mulligan, Part 2 : February 7, 2012 11:31 am

[...] This is Part Two of a four-part series that looks at the career of director Robert Mulligan. You can find Part One here. [...]

Posted By Adam Zanzie : April 27, 2012 4:45 am

Robert, this is a terribly late reply, but I just wanted to address one part of your response to my post:

“And I can’t disagree more with both Ebert and MZS about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I don’t think the film is about Atticus’ heroism, but about his children’s impressions of that heroism, which to me is an important distinction. Tom Robinson is viewed through the childrens’ perspective, and therefore can’t take a larger role, since the film can only show what the children see.”

See, this is the same argument I used to endorse myself, but one part of Ebert’s review caught my eye:

The novel, which focuses on the coming of age of three young children, especially the tomboy Scout, gains strength from her point of view: It sees the good and evil of the world through the eyes of a six-year-old child. The movie shifts the emphasis to the character of her father, Atticus Finch, but from this new point of view doesn’t see as much as an adult in that time and place should see.

For the longest time I was dumbfounded that Ebert claims the film shows us Atticus’ POV of the story’s events, since I, too, was under the impression that the film, like the book, is largely told from the POV of Scout and Jem. But then Ebert goes on to elaborate:

I also wonder at the general lack of emotion in the courtroom, and the movie only grows more puzzling by what happens next. Atticus is told by the sheriff that while Tom Robinson was being taken for safekeeping to nearby Abbottsville, he broke loose and tried to run away. As Atticus repeats the story: “The deputy called out to him to stop. Tom didn’t stop. He shot at him to wound him and missed his aim. Killed him. The deputy says Tom just ran like a crazy man.”

That Scout could believe it happened just like this is credible. That Atticus Finch, an adult liberal resident of the Deep South in 1932, has no questions about this version is incredible. In 1962 it is possible that some (white) audiences would believe that Tom Robinson was accidentally killed while trying to escape, but in 2001 such stories are met with a weary cynicism.

I’ve tried as hard as possible to locate a rebuttal to Ebert’s criticisms, but I think he may have a point here. Recall that in the book, it is revealed that Tom was pumped with bullets by the police, and that Atticus is appalled that they shot him so many times. In the movie, however, Tom is shot once (apparently) by the police after being warned to stop, and Atticus doesn’t for a minute doubt the police’s story. So this does seem like a fairly dated aspect of an otherwise great movie — that Peck’s Atticus, for all his heroism, is not without a little bit of naivete.

Posted By Adam Zanzie : April 27, 2012 4:45 am

Robert, this is a terribly late reply, but I just wanted to address one part of your response to my post:

“And I can’t disagree more with both Ebert and MZS about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I don’t think the film is about Atticus’ heroism, but about his children’s impressions of that heroism, which to me is an important distinction. Tom Robinson is viewed through the childrens’ perspective, and therefore can’t take a larger role, since the film can only show what the children see.”

See, this is the same argument I used to endorse myself, but one part of Ebert’s review caught my eye:

The novel, which focuses on the coming of age of three young children, especially the tomboy Scout, gains strength from her point of view: It sees the good and evil of the world through the eyes of a six-year-old child. The movie shifts the emphasis to the character of her father, Atticus Finch, but from this new point of view doesn’t see as much as an adult in that time and place should see.

For the longest time I was dumbfounded that Ebert claims the film shows us Atticus’ POV of the story’s events, since I, too, was under the impression that the film, like the book, is largely told from the POV of Scout and Jem. But then Ebert goes on to elaborate:

I also wonder at the general lack of emotion in the courtroom, and the movie only grows more puzzling by what happens next. Atticus is told by the sheriff that while Tom Robinson was being taken for safekeeping to nearby Abbottsville, he broke loose and tried to run away. As Atticus repeats the story: “The deputy called out to him to stop. Tom didn’t stop. He shot at him to wound him and missed his aim. Killed him. The deputy says Tom just ran like a crazy man.”

That Scout could believe it happened just like this is credible. That Atticus Finch, an adult liberal resident of the Deep South in 1932, has no questions about this version is incredible. In 1962 it is possible that some (white) audiences would believe that Tom Robinson was accidentally killed while trying to escape, but in 2001 such stories are met with a weary cynicism.

I’ve tried as hard as possible to locate a rebuttal to Ebert’s criticisms, but I think he may have a point here. Recall that in the book, it is revealed that Tom was pumped with bullets by the police, and that Atticus is appalled that they shot him so many times. In the movie, however, Tom is shot once (apparently) by the police after being warned to stop, and Atticus doesn’t for a minute doubt the police’s story. So this does seem like a fairly dated aspect of an otherwise great movie — that Peck’s Atticus, for all his heroism, is not without a little bit of naivete.

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