The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Review
John Singer (Alan Arkin), a deaf mute, moves to the small Southern US town of Jefferson to be near his friend Spiros Antonapoulos (Chuck McCann), another deaf mute, but also brain-damaged and sectioned. While he lives there, Singer’s kindness attracts three troubled people: teenaged Margaret, known as Mick (Sondra Locke), a conflicted and frustrated black doctor, Copeland (Percy Rodriguez), and an angry drunk, Jake Blount (Stacy Keach – with a “Jr” added to his name, in his debut film role).
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the first and longest of Carson McCullers’s four novels. (Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Member of the Wedding have also been filmed, as has the novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, with only her last novel, Clock Without Hands, unadapted for the big screen.) It’s a remarkable novel, even more so that the author was all of twenty-three when it was first published in 1940. Born Lula Carson Smith (McCullers was her married name), she had a short life, dying at age fifty, and suffered from ill health and alcoholism, not to mention divorce and remarriage to the same man, the second time ending with his suicide. But early on, there’s evidence of an imaginative boldness. It’s not hard to see Mick as an authorial surrogate, but McCullers also writes from the viewpoint of adults both black and white, male and female – and in later novels, straight and gay too. (Both McCullers and her husband were bisexual.) She also writes some very convincing young children.
The novel can’t be an easy one to adapt, as it’s a series of character studies rather than a plot, with four main characters’s orbits intersecting with that of John Singer. (The fourth is Brannon, the owner of the diner where Singer eats, cut down to a minor character in the film. Also, Blount’s role is much reduced.) At least in a novel the author can enter the heads of her characters, but in a film we can only see them from outside. As well as being restricted by the characters' dialogue and actions, the screenwriter has to construct a shapely narrative line out of a seriies of incidents. Thomas C. Ryan’s screenplay deviates from the novel in quite a number of ways. As I mention above, the number of major characters has been reduced, and entire scenes and incidents have been excised entirely. In the meantime new material has been invented – such as a scene where Mick tries to “explain” music to Singer. What could be narrated in a few pages now has to be dramatised, such as in the eleven-minute pre-credits sequence detailing how Singer came to Jefferson. If this sometimes results in a loss of subtlety – particularly in the final scene – well, I guess that’s Hollywood for you. Add to the difficulty the fact that the protagonist and one other major character do not speak a single line of dialogue between them.
The result is very much an actor’s piece. Alan Arkin had already been Oscar-nominated for his first film, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and he earned himself a second nod for this film. It’s easy to be snide and suggest that the Academy is over-indulgent of actors playing disabled people, but Arkin gives a remarkable performance, carrying much of the film with just his facial expressions and body language. Chuck McCann, mainly a comedian and children’s TV entertainer, gives a change of pace performance as the man-child Spiros. (It’s not too much of a stretch to read the film as a platonic love story between two men.) Percy Rodriguez makes Dr Copeland a much angrier figure than he is in the novel, with added racial overtones possibly due to the time the film was made. On the other hand, Cicely Tyson is a little too old to play his daughter Portia. Robert Ellis Miller, a late replacement for Joseph Strick, does a solid, competent job, but this isn’t really a director’s piece. James Wong Howe’s camerawork adds greatly to the atmosphere and refutes the myth that this great DP, by then forty-five years into a career which began in silent days, couldn’t work effectively in colour. Dave Grusin’s score is haunting.
But the revelation for me was Sondra Locke. A little less tomboyish than the novel’s Mick, she’s otherwise just right, at times alluring, at others infuriating, as a young woman coming of age and wanting to make something of herself, despite forces likely to thwart her.. Now best known as Clint Eastwood’s off-screen girlfriend and co-star in six films, this film shows what she was capable of, and is by far her best work on screen. She earned the film’s other Oscar nomination.
At two hours, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter may be a little too long and character-led for some tastes. While it does have its sentimental moments, it manages to be a moving story that’s faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of its now-classic source novel.
Released as part of the third wave of Warner’s “Director’s Showcase” collection, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The DVD transfer is 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, opened up slightly from the intended ratio of 1.85:1. The result has a warm tone, respecting the heightened colour – particularly noticeable in skin tones - characteristic of many late-1960s films. Blacks are solid, grain present and filmlike.
The soundtrack is mono, which is the way this film was made and released. There’s nothing to complain about here, as dialogue and sound effects are well balanced. Three sets of subtitles are available on the feature only: hard-of-hearing titles in English, dialogue-only subtitles in French and Thai.
The theatrical trailer (2:58) is interesting, a wholesale attempt to sell the film based on Carson McCullers’s and her novel’s prestige, and the character of Mick being “herself”. The voiceover (read by Sondra Locke, I presume) seems to consist of extracts from the novel with the third-person original becoming first-person when Mick is mentioned. As with the main feature, this is 1.78:1 anamorphic, but no subtitles are available.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter wasn’t on the cutting edge of American filmmaking in 1968. I suspect that, in the era of Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider it looked rather old-fashioned. As a result it’s been somewhat neglected over the forty years since, so full marks to Warners for bringing it out on DVD as it’s well worth another look.