Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) from the courtroom balcony, To Kill A Mockingbird, shot by Russell Harlan, 1962
Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis) and an empty classroom, Up the Down Staircase, shot by Joseph F. Coffey, 1967
A warning shadow, The Stalking Moon, shot by Charles Lang, 1968
Aunt Ida (Uta Hagen) and gasoline can, The Other, shot by Robert Surtees, 1972
If the career of Robert Mulligan, who died yesterday at age 83, could be summed up in a motto,that motto might be "Integrity Through Mise-en-scene." The director worked in just about every genre except the epic—what links all his films together is a kind of intimacy, achieved largely via a camera that seeks to establish a strong link between the viewer and a particular character. As Dave Kehr notes, "Mulligan had a deep understanding of the rarely used subjective viewpoint in cinema." No one who loves Mockingbird need be told why that view from the courtroom balcony plays so strongly. And while the shot of Sandy Dennis made puny by the desks and the looming darkness in Staircase is not from her character's point of view, it conveys her character's point of view perfectly. The shot from The Stalking Moon is from the perspective you are meant to root for; the shot from The Other from a somewhat more problematic perspective.
Mulligan was a frequently wonderful director whose humanist instincts were uniformly strong, but whose work never devolved into the sentimental. Virtually no one today has been doing what he did for quite some time, so in a way it's inaccurate to say that he will be missed; the director, who made his final film, The Man In The Moon, in 1991, has been missed.
UPDATE: Joseph Failla has some thoughts, and a particular emphasis on The Other:
I don't know why Robert Mulligan's name is not better known since his films are so well liked by many moviegoers. One look at a listing of his work and you'll see a number of popular favorites (Love With The Proper Stranger, Up The Down Staircase, Summer of '42), some well-thought-of sleepers (Baby, The Rain Must Fall, Inside Daisy Clover) and at least one classic (To Kill A Mockingbird). But I guess it's hard to be recognized for a certain style when your particular gift is one of welcomed restraint and understatement.
There's no better example of downplaying what could have been a very gratuitous experience than Mulligan's 1972 shocker, The Other. Seemingly shot with the same vision of small town, '30s rural life he created for Mockingbird, it's a supremely American Gothic horror tale that will remind you of Val Lewton crossed with Earl Hamner Jr., rather than the then current visceral trends of the genre. The film's success at being so downright scary has everything to do with avoiding the obvious; even its most gruesome moments come off as more suggestive than unflinching. But the general darkness that surrounds the characters can be found in many of Mulligan's films starting with Anthony Perkins troubled turn in Fear Strikes Out, the sadness that affects Natalie Wood in Proper Stranger or Daisy Clover, and the foreboding danger of The Stalking Moon.
As soon as the film begins, you can sense the menace lurking just behind the nostalgic, rustic landscape from the unusual relationship depicted between the young twin brothers. When you speak of Mulligan's "viewpoint" it's never been more apparent than here, since the brothers are always distanced from one another within each shot. A technique that's maintained throughout the course of the film and is in fact the key to it's storytelling. Even if one can deduce what's coming, the film gains from further viewings, not losing any of it's all important, initial impact. The dark cinematography by Robert Surtees is quite beautiful and when married to another fine Jerry Goldsmith score, you have one of the most sensorial of horror films that has managed to go by, sadly underappreciated.
Though in a way, the film's long unavailabilty (it's only come to DVD in the last couple of years), may have worked to it's benefit in that there could be a whole new audience waiting to rediscover it with no prior misconceptions. I was lucky enough to have seen this on a great double feature with The Legend of Hell House, another fine horror film which dodged sensationalism in favor of atmospheric tension and provided me with one of the most unsettling afternoons at the movies I can remember.
I think I was at that double feature myself—among other things, the beginning of a long imaginary adolescent love affair with Hell House's Pamela Franklin. But that's another story...