Gregory Peck (1916-2003)


I always liked Gregory Peck. Although he was sometimes criticized for having a somewhat wooden acting style, there was no question that he had an impressive on-screen presence where he seemed to ooze integrity and the viewer was confident that he would do the right thing. I haven’t seen all his films of course, but as far as I am aware, there were very few in which he played a villainous character, one being Joseph Mengele in The Boys From Brazil.

I recently watched four of his films in succession. One was a second viewing of the Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound (1945) with Ingrid Bergman which explored Freudian theories of dream interpretation as part of psychotherapy. This was a good film that I enjoyed this time around too. The next was another Hitchcock film that I had not heard of before even though I am a Hitchcock fan and that was The Paradine Case (1947) where he plays a married lawyer who falls in love with a beautiful client accused of poisoning her rich husband. I can see now why I had not heard of this mercifully forgotten film. It lacked suspense, the plot was weak, and the unrequited love story between him and his client was unconvincing.

The third film I saw, again for the second time, was the classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). It is still a wonderful film for several reasons: its portrayal of racism in Alabama in the mid-1930s, Peck’s portrayal of a father and lawyer who believes in doing the right thing, the subplot of the mysterious and frightening neighbor played by a young Robert Duvall, and the way it portrayed events through the eyes of children. This is one of those films that uses shadows very effectively and benefitted from being filmed in black and white, even though color film had arrived by then.

I had not realized until very recently that Peck had starred in many westerns. For some reason, those films had never crossed my path so I checked out the one that most critics liked and that was The Gunfighter (1950). This was a good film in which Peck plays a former outlaw gang member regretting his past, and the difficulty he has in trying to escape it. It is a theme that has been repeated in other westerns like Shane (1953) starring Alan Ladd and more darkly in Unforgiven (1992) starring Clint Eastwood. The highly compressed time frame over which most of the action takes place, the repeated shots of a clock on the wall, and the major role played by the town’s citizenry prefigured the classic High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper.

Here’s the trailer.

Peck was unabashedly politically progressive and supported all manner of good causes all his life. Even as far back as in 1997 he spoke at an awards ceremony for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and said “It just seems silly to me that something so right and simple has to be fought for at all.”

Peck’s fame and stature seemed to extend to the remotest corners of the world. I recall traveling as a child with my family on a trip in Sri Lanka and on a remote stretch of road we passed by a small shack that had a huge sign in front that said “Gregory Peck Tailoring Mart”. Clearly the proprietor felt that Peck was so well known that his star power would help him attract customers even in a non-English speaking region far, far from Hollywood.

Comments

  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    My favourite Peck movies; Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Beach. He was a formidable Captain Ahab.

  2. Mobius says

    @Rob Grigjanis

    Yes, Peck was an excellent choice for Ahab in Moby Dick. His admittedly wooden style was perfect for the part. I found it interesting that the Moby Dick remake in the ’90s had Peck in a cameo role, playing the preacher at the start of the movie. Again, his acting style fit the role very well.

  3. dukeofomnium says

    His was a very wooden style of acting, but in certain situations and roles, that worked out well for him. In Spellbound, this woodenness makes his mental illness (the “guilt complex”) more believable. In The Big Country and To Kill a Mockingbird, it made him phlegmatic and gave him gravitas. It did NOT work in movies like Duel in the Sun: he could not credibly lust after Jennfier Jones.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Mobius,

    It’s been a long time since I read the book (I have not been the films) but maybe you can clarify something for me. I recall that just before the ship sailed, there were some shadowy figures who boarded it and entered the captain’s cabin but these people never reappeared in the book. I was baffled by this. Are you or any other reader familiar with this? Who were those people?

  5. DonDueed says

    dukeofomnium mentioned The Big Country, another Western Peck starred in. He plays an Easterner, a ship’s captain, who comes West to marry a rancher’s daughter, but find himself in the middle of a range war and a lot of other complications.

    Incidentally, my nym is derived from a line in that movie, or rather from an inside joke in my family based on that line. Readers familiar with the film might remember the line by pronouncing my nym with a Mexican accent.

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