Gregory Peck Centennial Collection Blu-ray Review: Two Great Films, One Nice Package

That Gregory Peck was one of the greatest film actors to ever exist there is no denying. Had he only appeared as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and never made another movie, he’d still be considered one of the greats (much like Harper Lee is considered a great American author though she never wrote another book – I cannot count Go Set a Watchmen as hers as I don’t believe she ever intended it to be released). Of course, Peck did make other movies including the classics Roman Holiday, The Yearling, Twelve O’Clock High, Cape Fear, and so many others. He would have been 100 years old this year and to celebrate Universal Studios has packed together two of these films (Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird) into a nice package just in time for the holidays.

In Cape Fear, Peck plays Sam Bowden, a Georgia lawyer who witnessed Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) assault and rape a young woman. Sam testified against Cady, sending him to prison for eight years. Upon release, Cady tracks Sam down and begins harassing his family. While in prison, Cady studied law and knows exactly where the lines of legality are drawn and is able to stand just inside them. Though he might not technically be breaking any laws, it is clear he poses a serious threat to Sam, his wife (Polly Bergen), and his 14-year-old daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). Over the course of the movie, Cady moves closer and closer to causing harm as the tension tightens over the audience’s mind.

It’s a terrific thriller that stands up as well today as it did 50 years ago. While I enjoy Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake, it cannot begin to improve upon the original. I hadn’t seen it in a great many years and honestly, I was a little worried it wouldn’t hold up. The filmmakers had numerous fights with the censorship board (notoriously they couldn’t say the word “rape” which is difficult for a film that centers around the subject) and I suspected it would struggle with how to imbue the film with the horror it really needs to thrill. My worries took hold in the first few scenes as Cady is certainly threatening but you don’t really get the sense that he is truly dangerous. But then he meets a woman of low morals, as they might say back then, and takes her back to a sleazy motel. There is a moment when he looks at her lying on the bed and Mitchum’s eyes are filled with such menace that he embodies the purest of evil. After that, all bets are off and the thrills never stop.

Director J. Lee Thompson films it in stark black and white. He gives it a Hitchcockian feel, filling it with deep shadows and odd angles, which give each scene a sense of dread. The tight script by James R. Webb keeps the pace moving quickly, heightening the tension until things erupt in the third act. If there is a complaint to be had, it’s that Peck’s Sam is a little too perfect (with the minor exception of hiring some goons to beat the tar out of Cady, but who could blame him at that point?) And that Cady is too evil without a shred of decency. Scorsese’s film muddles those waters, making his version more morally ambiguous, but here the morals are about as black and white as the photography. That’s a minor quibble though for by the time they wind up on that house boat, I no longer care except that Cady gets it in the end.

The Blu-ray looks great. The black and white photography is gorgeous to look at. The blacks are sharp and the whites crisp. There are a few instances of scratch lines appearing but mostly it’s a beautiful print. Audio is nice too. Bernard Herman’s fantastic score comes in loud and clear but never interferes with the dialogue, which is easily understood. Extras are minimal. There are some playable stills from the movie, a trailer, and a nice 27 minutes making-of in which J. Lee Thompson and Gregory Peck talk about the film. It’s a nice piece but an old one. I’ve definitely seen it before.

To Kill a Mockingbird ranks as one of the greatest films ever made. It easily makes my top five of all time. It’s the rare film that makes me want to be a better person. I dream of being the man Atticus Finch is in this film; I wish I was the sort of man that people stood up for as I’m passing. It is a film that never fails to make me cry. I’d not seen it in several years but turning it on this evening, my eyes swelled up just hearing that beautiful score from Elmer Bernstein.

Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, a morally upright lawyer in Macon, Georgia during the 1930s. He’s asked by the local judge to defend a black man (Brock Peters) against charges of raping a white woman. That it is so clear to everyone he did not commit this crime is underscored by the outright and out-front racism that permeates the town. While that trial is the centerpiece of the story, at its heart are the children. Atticus’ children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford), and their neighbor Dill (John Megna) run lazily around the town on summer days and we see the story through their eyes. The movie gets everything about childhood just exactly right. Everything is bigger then, and strange. Adults do such peculiar things. The days are long and filled with adventure. The house around the corner is filled with monsters, and the old lady down the road is hateful and mean.

The film gets all its details perfectly. From the way the old men play checkers on old wooden boxes in the town square. Or how when the children pause for a moment at the courthouse steps, Jem and Scout immediately play on the handrail. I’ve seen my five-year-old daughter do this countless times. Mary Badham is a wonder as Scout. She fills the character with these marvelous little ticks that makes her alive and real and fills her in with a boundless naivety that’s grounded in a maturity beyond her age.

I adore this film. There are so many wonderful little scenes. There’s Atticus leaving the courtroom and Scout being told by the preacher to stand up. Or there’s the bedtime conversation where Scout asks Jem if he misses their dead mother. Then there’s Jem running to touch Boo Radley’s front door when he realizes he’s already in their yard. There’s, “Hey Boo,” and “He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a knife, and our lives.” And so many memorable lines, I might as well write the script out.

You could argue that it’s too perfect a movie. That it’s the embodiment of white guilt where the kind, upstanding white man is needed to rush in and save the gentle black folk from the evil southerners. You could complain that Atticus is too righteous to be real. Those are fair points, but I don’t care. I love every minute of it. It might not depict the world as it was; it might be a self-righteous Hollywood version of the way we might want things to be. But in a world so filled with cynicism, racism, sexism, and every other horrible -ism around, I want there to be more Atticus Finch’s to fight the good fight. Even if they are fictional.

The video on this Blu-ray looks absolutely gorgeous. Russel Harlan’s cinematography has always been stunning and its looks terrific in this edition. They perhaps got a little bit too heavy handed with the DNR to remove the existing grain (this is most noticeable during optical zooms when one expects a little grain and instead everything looks strangely sanitized) but mostly i’ts a superb job of restoration. Audio likewise is wonderfully set. It’s a modest film sound wise, but the dialogue is always clear and Bernstein’s haunting, beautiful score sounds great.

Once again, the extras are mostly recycled but there’s more of them here than on Cape Fear and they are good. There’s the usual production gallery and trailer, plus an excellent feature-length documentary. Producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan swap behind-the-scenes stories in a laid back audio commentary. Then there’s Gregory Peck’s Academy Award acceptance speech and a long Q&A with the elderly actor. Also included are a tribute to Peck from his daughter, the actor’s AFI lifetime achievement award speech, a short feature on the film’s restoration, and six cards with photographs from the film.

Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird are two of Gregory Peck’s greatest films. They absolutely deserve to be seen over and over again and should be owned by every serious fan of classic cinema. The Blu-ray restorations of both films are excellent. The extras included here are nice but recycled. This is the sort of set I’d buy my father-in-law for Christmas. He’s the kind of guy who is impossible to buy for but enjoys watching old movies. This is not an essential version of either film, but certainly a very nice package. It would have been nice to have included more films from the celebrated actor on his 100th birthday, but that’s likely a rights issue. Overall, I cannot complain about what we get in this set, except that it could have been so much more.

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Mat Brewster

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