Format: DVD from Manhattan-Elwood Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.
I should’ve know what I was getting into with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, based as it is on the work of Carson McCullers. McCullers depresses me. Her stories tend to focus on misfits who don’t fit in with society and who can’t decide if they want to be a part of society or remain apart and aloof from it. Many of her characters have grandiose dreams that far exceed their ability to achieve them. That’s not specifically the case with our main character here, but it’s certainly the case with just about everyone else in the story.
This is the story of John Singer (a nominated Alan Arkin), a deaf-mute living in the South. His lone friend is Spiros Antonopoulos (Chuck McCann), an overgrown man with the mind of a child. Spiros is constantly in trouble because he doesn’t fully understand the idea of consequences or that (for instance) breaking the front window of the bakery and taking the cookies is a problem. Shortly after this incident, Spiros is sent off to an asylum by his frustrated uncle. John, having nothing to keep him in town, moves closer to where Spiros is and attempts to gain legal guardianship of his friend.
Singer finds work—he’s an engraver by trade—and rents a room from the Kelly family. The room rental comes at the insistence of Mrs. Kelly (Laurinda Barrett) to help compensate for her husband (Biff McGuire) having been confined to a wheelchair after an accident. John’s arrival makes him an immediate enemy in the Kelly’s teenaged daughter Mick (Sondra Locke, nominated in a supporting role) since the room that he is renting originally belonged to her. For her part, Mick is very much a Carson McCullers character. She has aspirations of a life in classical music, specifically as a pianist, but doesn’t know how to play the piano. She’s also a misfit; we learn shortly after John renting her room that she has pointedly not been invited to a party being held by one of her high school classmates.
What follows is John Singer more or less becoming the common factor in the lives of a series of misfits who either live in this city or drift through it. One night, John watches a drunk man named Blount (Stacy Keach) beat himself senseless out of frustration with his life. John demands help from Dr. Copeland (Percy Rodriguez), a local African-American physician who is staunchly segregationist and refuses to assist white patients on moral grounds. This incident gives John a temporary friend in Blount and a surprisingly ally in Copeland. Copeland’s issue, in addition to hating every white person on the planet who isn’t John Singer, is that his educated daughter Portia (Cicely Tyson) has given up the future he wanted for her, become a maid, and married a farmhand.
What we get, then, is a film in which people come to John Singer to solve their problems and John Singer has no one to take his problems to. In each case, specifically Mick, Spiros, Blount, and Dr. Copeland, we have people who have more or less decided that John is the solution to all of their ailments and who more or less use him for that purpose.
Alan Arkin’s nomination is unusual, and I’m not entirely sure that I understand it. It seems like that old trope that the way to be nominated for Best Actor is to play a role that is physically or mentally disabled in some way. Arkin appears natural with his sign language (and it’s a nice touch that this is never subtitled for us) and his performance is solid, but also almost anal retentive. In a subtle way, it almost feels like Dustin Hoffman studied this film and Arkin’s performance in preparation for Rain Man. It’s at least true in terms of clothing style and in terms of how entirely buttoned-down Arkin plays John Singer.
The biggest surprise for me is Sondra Locke. I haven’t seen a ton of her movies. Previous to this, I could have told you two things about her. The first is that she was romantically involved with Clint Eastwood for ages. The second is that my mother disliked her intently and never thought she could act. Mom probably didn’t see The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, because Locke is quite good in it. In fact, I think she’s the best thing in the film, playing Mick as both innocent and precocious. I don’t actually like Mick as a character much because she’s just Frankie Adams from The Member of the Wedding a couple of years later. That doesn’t detract from Locke’s performance, though.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is generally liked a lot more than I liked it. Like I said at the top, I find McCullers depressing, and I find this one more depressing than most of her work. I don’t like the ending, and I’m not sure I understand the motivation for that ending. Worse, if that motivation is as simple as I think it is, the whole story feels like a cheat.
Why to watch The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: A nice cast and some good work from Sondra Locke.
Why not to watch: There’s something incredibly depressing about the work of Carson McCullers.