The Story: Robert Mulligan begins this scene outside a bedroom window, and returns us outside when it is done, right before "outside" forces set foot on the Finch stoop and alter the Family dynamic.
Inside and outside are two different worlds in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Inside is familial and warm. Outside, people are eccentric, and nature seems threatening. In this child's eye view of the world the trees rustle with unseen danger, their moving shadows crossing over the children like threatening wraiths. Everything seems strange and scary, what with nasty neighbors (including the mythically haunted Radley household), mad dogs appearing on the street, and economic and racial tensions in the town transforming the town-folk.
Inside, Atticus Finch is settling his children down for the night, spending quality time with them, one suspects, in a ritualistic way: the reading exercises, the presentation of familiar heirlooms, the taking of stock, and between the children the final sharing of history that mumbles down to sleep. We're in the child's world, looking in as they suspect "Boo" Radley does, moving outside to the father on the porch-swing hearing their talking of their late mother, and left alone with his own memories—the adult providing the warmth inside and the protection from the outside. One sees the toll taken. For that moment, Atticus Finch is not a paragon of virtue, but a mere human being doing the best that he can (although he might not know his son's age today), as he sits listening to his children talk themselves to sleep, an empty arm draped over the swing's back.
The Set-Up: "Maycomb was a tired, old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it." It's the end of a day towards the end of Summer, typical in some ways, but not typical in others. Jem and Jean Louise—"Scout"—Finch (Phillip Alford,Mary Badham) have found a new playmate in Charles Baker—"Folks call me 'Dill'"—Harris (John Megna), and the kids have scoped out the scary Radley place down the road, and agitated the elderly Miss Dubose. Now, after a fine meal prepared by Calpurnia (Estelle Evans) (probably with hickory nuts from Mr. Cunningham provided for legal services rendered), the kids settle down for the night, which includes some reading time with lawyer-father Atticus (Gregory Peck). None of them knows that tonight will start a series of events that will change their lives forever.
Scout(reading): "I had two cats... which I brought ashore... on my first raft. And I had a dog."
Scout: Atticus, do you think Boo Radley ever really comes and looks in my window at night? Jem says he does. This afternoon when we were over by their house...
Atticus: Scout...I told you and Jem to leave those poor people alone. I want you to stay away from their house...and stop tormenting them.
Scout: Yes, sir.
Atticus: That's all the reading for tonight, honey. It's getting late.
Scout: What time is it?
Scout: May I see your watch?
Scout: "To Atticus, my beloved husband." Atticus, Jem says this watch is gonna belong to him someday.
Atticus: That's right.
Atticus: Well... it's customary... for the boy to have his father's watch.
Scout: What are you gonna give me?
Atticus: I don't know that I have much else of value that belongs to me.
Atticus: But there's a pearl necklace, there's a ring that belonged to your mother. I put them away, and they're to be yours.
Atticus: Good night, Scout.
Scout: Good night.
Atticus: Good night, Jem.
Jem: Good night.
Scout: How old was I when Mama died?
Scout: How old were you?
Scout: Old as I am now?
Scout: Was Mama pretty?
Scout: Was Mama nice?
Scout: Did you love her?
Scout: Did I love her?
Scout: Do you miss her?
To Kill a Mockingbird
Words by Harper Lee and Horton Foote
Pictures by Russell Harlan and Robert Mulligan
To Kill a Mockingbird is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.
While playing Atticus Finch, Gregory Peck bonded with the child-actors playing his children, especially Mary Badham—the youngest actor to be nominated for an Academy Award—and maintained that friendship until the day he died.