Let’s Go To the Movies*

A lot of people take time off during the holiday season to relax and be with their families. And, of course, to watch a good film. It’s not surprising, then, that many films are released on Christmas or very close to it – including crime films.

Just to take two examples, To Kill a Mockingbird was released in 1962, and The Sting was released in 1973. They’re by no means the only Christmas day releases, but both have become classics, although they’re two very different sorts of films. And because they’re so different, they show just a little of the breadth of the genre when it comes to cinema.

Some people say that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t really a crime story, but an alleged crime is at the heart of it: Mayella Ewell alleges that she was raped by Tom Robinson. Robinson is Black, and this is early 1960’s Maycomb, Alabama, so people are only too quick to believe Mayella. Robinson is arrested and nearly lynched. Later, he is put on trial for the crime, with local attorney Atticus Finch to defend him. The film arguably places more emphasis on the trial and on the near-lynching than the book does (although both are certainly treated in the book), and that’s not surprising. Those events are dramatic, and they lend themselves to the visual. And if you’ve seen the film, you know that those scenes (among others) are iconic.

Also iconic (or perhaps this is just my view) is the performance of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. In the novel, Finch is a more layered character than he is in the film, but his commitment to following the law and the U.S. Constitution is clear. So is his bond with his daughter Scout and son Jem.

In some ways, Robert Mulligan took some risks with To Kill a Mockingbird. For one thing, it treats the subject of racism – not an easy thing to do in 1962.

Here, for instance, is a bit of his speech in court (I’m quoting directly from the script, using the words from the original screenplay):

The witnesses for the State, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County,
have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence
that their testimony would not be doubted.
Confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption,
the evil assumption, that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings,
all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women.
An assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber, and which is, in itself, gentlmen, a lie, which I do not need to point out to you.

 And it puts the topic in the context of how we treat other human beings. That, too, can be tricky. For another thing, the film was an adaptation of highly successful and well-regarded novel. Adapting any novel for screen is a challenge; adapting a nuanced and complex coming-of-age novel with social commentary is even more of a challenge. But Mulligan did his job; the film has become a classic.

George Roy Hill’s The Sting has also become a classic. It’s not based on a novel, but rather on real-life cons that were carried out by Fred and Charley Gondorff. David Maurer’s (1940) The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man tells the Gondorffs’ story. The film’s focus is Johnny Hooker, a small-time grifter whose con-job partner Luther Coleman is murdered by hired thugs sent in by crime boss Doyle Lonnegan. Hooker ends up having to escape for his life, but he hasn’t forgotten what Lonegan did. He seeks out former grifter Henry Gondorff, and the two set up a phony betting operation to con Lonnegan.

As Hooker and Gondorff, Robert Redford and Paul Newman have a strong on-screen partnership that adds much to the film (as they do in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, also directed by Hill). There’s also a memorable performance by Eileen Brennan as Gondorff’s partner (and brothel owner) Billie. And Robert Shaw makes a very convincing Doyle Lonnegan.

The plot is complex, and the setup for the sting operation is complicated. So if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll want to watch it very carefully; there are a lot of easy-to-miss nuances. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve seen the film several times, and I still see something new in it with every viewing.

This is a caper film, and there is wit in it. Here, for instance is a short exchange between Lonnegan and Hooker (who is pretending to be Gondorff’s ‘errand boy’ Kelly):

Lonnegan: Your boss is quite a card player, Mr. Kelly. How does he do it?
Kelly: He cheats.

And here’s an exchange between Lieutenant Snyder (who is trying to chase Hooker down) and Billie. The scene is her brothel:

Lt. Snyder: Which way are the rooms?
Billie: Right through there, but I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.
Lt. Snyder: What are you gonna do, call the cops?
Billie: I don’t have to. You’ll be bustin’ in on the chief of police just up the hall.

The film does have a light touch, but it’s not at all what you’d call comic or ‘frothy.’ Oh, and there’s that Scott Joplin score…

As I mentioned, these two films are very different. But they show some of the different ways in which crime stories are handled on screen. And both are considered to be among the best of American films. There are, of course, many other excellent crime films out there, that range from light, caper films to dark noir. So go ahead: relax and take a break from a busy, hectic life. Who needs reality when there are plenty of fictional crimes to solve…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.