Feb. 9, 2011

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)
Grade: 67/100

Director: Robert Ellis Miller
Stars: Alan Arkin, Sondra Locke, Percy Rodrigues

What it's about. Based on a bestseller novel by Carson McCullers, with the time period changed from the 1930s to the 1960s. Alan Arkin is an asexual, well dressed, well behaved deaf-mute. His best friend is Chuck McCann, also a deaf-mute, but with a childlike and irresponsible personality.

McCann is committed to a mental hospital in a distant small town in Alabama. Arkin moves to the town in order to visit McCann, and eventually secure his release. Arkin rents a bedroom from the Kelly family, which is in financial trouble due to a severe hip injury suffered by the husband, Biff McGuire. The other family members are stressed-out housewife Laurinda Barrett, gangly teenaged daughter Sondra Locke, and a mischievous pre-teenaged son.

It is in Arkin's nature to help others. He begins with Stacy Keach, an obnoxious drunk. Arkin's next target is Percy Rodrigues, a proud black doctor who detests whites. Rodrigues has a grown daughter, Cicely Tyson, who is estranged from Rodrigues due to the latter's refusal to help her hapless husband, Johnny Popwell.

Arkin also befriends Locke, who loves classical music and has ambitions of becoming a pianist. Locke is unpopular in school due to family poverty. She saves up for a party, which ends in disaster but nonetheless leads to a serious relationship with older schoolmate Wayne Smith.

How others will see it. The characters are sympathetic, and the script and direction are competent. The film was critically well received, and it received several prestigious nominations, including Best Picture from the Golden Globes, and Best Actor (Arkin) and Best Supporting Actress (Locke) from the Oscars. Arkin was nominated because of the challenge of playing a deaf-mute. Unfortunately, he lost to an actor (Cliff Robertson) playing a mentally retarded man. Sandra Locke, of course, was later better known as Clint Eastwood's girlfriend, and starred with him in several films during the nadir (Any Which Way You Can, etc.) of his long career.

Today, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is relatively obscure. At imdb.com, it has only 1,466 user votes, compared to the 169,072 votes for another 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, those who have seen the film have consistently given it high grades, which average 7.7 out of 10.

How I felt about it. This movie compares favorably with Children of a Lesser God, which also featured a deaf character, played by Marlee Matlin. She won Best Actress that year, even though she was actually deaf, which made the character less of a stretch. Anyway, the sign language in Children of a Lesser God was constantly verbalized by William Hurt, since the director of that film, Randa Haines, apparently believed that audiences would not otherwise be able to infer their meaning.

Thankfully, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, director Robert Ellis Miller does not think we are stupid, and allows the sign language between Arkin and others to occur without as much as subtitles. Good for him.

We like the cast, the characters, and for the most part, the script. But the condensation of the source novel leads to abrupt character transitions. For example, Stacy Keach transforms from an alcoholic and suicidal bum into a responsible citizen with only a single transitional scene, and Tyson changes from loathing her father to loving him just by seeing purported X-rays of his lungs.

Further, McCann's death is mysterious: did he eat too much candy? Even if Arkin blames himself for McCann's demise (the two had a recent falling-out), this seems an insufficient reason for Arkin to commit suicide, which in any event he would do out of politeness in the countryside, instead of the Kelly home, where he would make a mess and traumatize the children.

Other character motivations are also strange. Tyson hates her father because he won't commit perjury on behalf of Popwell. How can Tyson blame Rodgrigues for Popwell's amputated leg, when Popwell was the one who cut up a white man with a knife, and tried to escape from prison? Further, why would Rodrigues feel so guilty over the tragedy of Popwell, and the unreasonable behavior from Tyson? If she is going to act that way, she and stubby can live with somebody else.