The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Directed By: Robert Ellis Miller
Starring: Alan Arkin, Sondra Locke, Percy Rodrigues, Cicely Tyson, Stacy Keach, Chuck McCann, Laurinda Barrett, Biff McGuire
In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, an adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel, Alan Arkin plays John Singer. Singer is a deaf mute whose best friend, Spiros Antonapoulos (McCann), also a deaf mute, has been declared mentally incompetent and institutionalized. While pursuing legal guardianship for Spiros, Singer rents a room close to the hospital in a small Georgia town. In this new environment, the compassionate but lonely Singer touches the lives of three other people. Mick (Locke) is the teenaged daughter of Singer's new land lords who is being forced to grow up too fast due to the realities of her father's long convalescence after a hip injury. Doctor Copeland (Rodrigues), is a local physician who serves the local black community, and would just as soon not even have to talk to white residents. Blount (Keach), is a self-destructive heavy-drinker who gets a job at the local carnival. All three have their own issues with loneliness that are helped somewhat through their association with Singer, although none of them know much about each other or Singer himself.
The screenplay by Thomas Ryan takes a number of liberties with McCuller's book, updating the novel's circa-1940 sensibility a bit to be more in step with the civil rights movement, reducing one major character to a cameo, and removing the labor-organizing Marxist leanings of Blount. Despite these changes, the central character of John Singer remains intact and is wonderfully realized by Alan Arkin. Arkin's wordless performance captures the compassionate and fastidiously neat nature of the character perfectly and earned him his second Oscar nomination. Sondra Locke, also Oscar nominated, makes an auspicious screen debut as the teenage Mick. Her performance is all the more impressive given the sometimes clichéd movie teenager dialog with which she is saddled.
The supporting cast all generally fare well with two notable exceptions. I can forgive the fact that Chuck McCann does not look even a little bit Greek, but I cannot overlook the fact that he overplays Spiros as a comic grotesque. The filmmakers tried to modernize the character of Portia from the book by establishing that she took her job as a domestic as an act of defiance against her physician father. Not only does this come across as unconvincing, but her behavior later in the film is so wildly histrionic and irrational that it undermines any efforts to establish her intelligence. Actress Cicely Tyson is given the impossible task of trying to reconcile these character elements and comes up with a stagy, over-modulated performance that only makes things worse.
These shortcomings aside, the film is still a keenly observed, sensitive drama. While the plot has certain trappings that tilt it towards the Southern Gothic genre (suicide, amputation, instititionalization, attempted lynching), it avoids most of the pitfalls of excess associated with the genre which could have made it seem either too cynical or too melodramatic.
On a technical side, the film benefits tremendously from the cinematography of James Wong Howe. The arrangement of foreground and background elements in the frame results in compositions with a strong sense of depth. Combined with the carefully constructed lighting set-ups, the captured images are striking and effective.
The transfer fills the full 16:9 enhanced frame. The film element carries a modest amount of grain with very infrequent instances of visible damage. Compression is very good given the amount of grain and I did not detect any sign of high contrast edge ringing. Detail is excellent with a nice balance of contrast allowing for shadow depth. Colors are slightly muted for a pleasing, and likely intentional, painterly effect. All in all, this is an excellent, very film-like rendering of James Wong Howe's outstanding cinematography.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track conveys the film's soundtrack effectively. The score, which frequently consists of guitar and harpsichord pieces supported by a small orchestra, is rendered with excellent fidelity.
The only available extra is the film's theatrical trailer which is presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound.
The film is packaged in a standard Amaray-style case with no inserts.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a sensitive drama anchored by a fine dialog-free performance from Alan Arkin and perhaps the best performance of Sondra Locke's film career. It is presented on disc with a very good transfer with only the film's theatrical trailer as an extra.