Creative genius Carson McCullers was fully aware that she was a prisoner in a weak body that would eventually fail her before her time. A mood of muted despair is a constant in her writing. Her first novel is a sobering but poetic tale of half-broken misfits and social rejects, that all cluster around a caring man forever marginalized as an outsider. Like all McCullers books it’s a painful, insightful bit of realism that doesn’t come with a tidy author’s message.
For the 1968 film adaptation of THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, Robert Ellis Miller (Any Wednesday, Sweet November) directs an impressive cast headed by the superb Alan Arkin. Alan is John Singer, a deaf mute who works as a jewelry engraver. Arkin’s character is enormously likeable, but he has his own doubts and frustrations stemming from the isolation imposed by his impairment. He is indeed a seeker, and we don’t know if he’ll find what he’s looking for.
Traditional movies treat blindness or deafness as a kind of magic charm that grants special insights to those afflicted and the people who come in contact with them — Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, for one. Things aren’t that simple for John Singer. Because ‘polite’ people keep their distance, John identifies with and gravitates toward other physically or socially impaired misfits. He takes personal responsibility for the mentally challenged Spiros (Chuck McCann), another deaf mute prone to infantile and erratic behavior, like spontaneous fits of vandalism. When Spiros is sent to an institution, John follows to help out and is soon doing his best to help the new people he meets. John’s landlord has suffered an injury and is handicapped. Drifter Jake Blount (Stacy Keach) has a serious problem with alcoholism. John also aids black doctor Copeland (Percy Rodriguez) to communicate in sign language with a deaf-mute patient. Copeland is unhappy that his daughter (Cicely Tyson) decided to become a maid instead of going to medical school. Portia’s husband is unjustly jailed after defending himself from some white thugs. Wherever he looks John sees human potential blocked by cruel realities. He gives of himself but can find no one to truly appreciate him.
Finally there’s the landlord’s daughter Mick Kelly (Sondra Locke), a teenager who dreams of a musical career her father cannot possibly afford. John befriends her. Of all of John’s friends, Mick is the one tries to give something back to him. He enjoys her birthday party but her excited attempt to share her interest in music is doomed — no matter how much he cares, John can’t hear the notes. John Singer lives among a multitude of people, but feels a terrible spiritual isolation.
The show maintains a low-key short story feeling throughout. James Wong Howe’s attractive cinematography remains in keeping with the film’s realistic aims. Dave Grusin’s evocative music score is a good fit as well. Director Miller chose not to bring attention to himself with camera gimmicks, and instead stays close to his actors at all times. It’s a remarkable grouping of talent. Stacy Keach and Cicely Tyson would soon become well known stars while Chuck McCann saw success in comedy roles. Percy Rodriguez’ distinctive profondo basso voice is in itself famous, from the narration for the trailers for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
Some people find THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER to be heartbreaking. It’s certainly more downbeat than I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, which showed yesterday to an appreciative TCM Fest crowd. Author McCullers wasn’t prone to uplifting endings, and screenwriter Thomas C. Ryan stayed close to her spirit. As a story about human values, this one’s an excellent choice for revival.
Speaking before the screening of THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER at the Egyptian today, star Alan Arkin held the crowd in awe. His screen characterizations have always been vivid, and varied: a Puerto Rican busboy in Popi, a diabolical killer in Wait Until Dark, and Joseph Heller’s John Yossarian in Catch-22. Ben Mankiewicz served as host for the extended interview. Arkin discussed his father’s blacklisting as a Los Angeles schoolteacher, the American Sign Language in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and the difficulties of performing in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Arkin conveyed a nice philosophical idea or two, in between some verbal sparring with Mankiewicz, who started the ball rolling by saying the actor had been described as ‘moderately cantankerous.’ Frankly, the discussion ended far too soon.