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Synopsis: Deaf mute John Singer (Alan Arkin) works as a jeweler's engraver and spends his time with Spiros Antonapoulos (Chuck McCann), a mentally impaired deaf mute not responsible for his erratic behavior. (1) A lawyer friend helps John bail Spiro from jail for vandalizing a bakery, but Spiro's father commits him to a mental hospital upstate. John follows to be near his friend, taking up residence in the house of the injured Mr. Kelly (Biff McGuire), whose wife (Laurinda Barrett) must rent out rooms to make ends meet. Young Mick Kelly (Sondra Locke) is a frustrated teen with dreams of a musical future not in the family budget. John carefully befriends Mick as well as other troubled people in town. He helps out an itinerant drunk, Blount (Stacy Keach) and breaks through the bitterness of a black doctor, Copeland (Percy Rodriguez) by serving as an interpreter for a deaf patient. But John's deaf condition makes communication difficult and his attempts to take Spiros out of the hospital are unsuccessful. John's acquaintances benefit from his friendship, while he seems to become more aware of his spiritual isolation.
An unusual film for 1968, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is just as unique today. Although we see John Singer using American Sign Language, none of it is translated, forcing us to guess at some of what's being 'said'. We feel Singer's frustration at the limits of people's patience; he's clearly a soulful fellow with a need to express himself. John is constantly going out of his way for others. He buys a record player so that Mick can hear classical music, and forces Dr. Copeland's stubborn daughter Portia (Cicely Tyson) to listen to the truth about her father. John's only deep relationship appears to be with the childlike, unpredictable Spiro, and John's anxiety increases as Spiro becomes more difficult to handle.
Many movies treat blindness and deafness as a kind of magic charm that brings special insights to those afflicted and the people who come in contact with them -- think of Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter doesn't make it that simple. Because 'polite' people keep their distance, John gravitates toward misfits and the unhappy. The drunkard Blount is a great guy when sober but he's also the wandering type and doesn't stay long. Dr. Copeland learns to appreciate John, but he's beset with terrible family problems. Mick wants to study music but her mother expects her to quit school to work full time in support of the family.
John can't express his feelings to Mick out loud, and he may not be good at expressing himself on paper. At any rate, spending so much time comforting the young girl risks their relationship being misinterpreted by others. Of all of John's new friends, Mick is the only one to make an effort to give something back -- she invites John to her party and tries to share her love of music with him. John plays along when Mick 'conducts' a classical selection, happily waving his arms with her. But he keeps moving after the music is over. The desire for a connection is there, but it doesn't happen. John is a caring man, but he's not magic.
A lot of bad things happen to people in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Mick's father's shattered hip doesn't get better. Dr. Copeland's worst fears are realized when he tries to talk to a judge at the all-white courthouse. We're always on edge, as when the teens at Mick's party play with dangerous fireworks, or when Dr. Copeland's son-in-law Willie (Johnny Popwell) runs afoul of some white thugs. John Singer takes some of these problems to heart, yet lives in tragic isolation. The most frustrating scene occurs when John takes Spiro to a restaurant on a strict time schedule. Spiro ignores John's calls to leave and keeps stuffing himself with food. John has to lead Spiro to a taxi by holding out a box of chocolates, like a carrot in front of a mule. Once in the taxi, John is so angry that he throws the candy out the window. The sad The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is informed with special insights into human loneliness.
The sad life of author Carson McCullers provides parallels to this unusual story. Young McCullers grew up in Georgia and went to New York for a music education, a plan that had to be abandoned when she lost her money in the big city. She had bad health problems, suffered strokes even in her early twenties and was eventually partially paralyzed. Her marriage to a sailor was difficult and beset with problems with alcohol. Several of her stories about misfits and outsiders were made into movies, including Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye and Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Some of her characters are frustrated homosexuals, which makes us wonder about John's basic character makeup in the novel. Jake Blount has been altered from McCullers' original characterization; in the book he was a labor organizer.
Alan Arkin is exceptional as John Singer, a quiet man expressing thoughts and emotions with his eyes and small facial gestures that go unnoticed. Future Clint Eastwood spouse Sondra Locke is also excellent, in the role that clearly corresponds to the author's point of view; McCullers sees herself as a sensitive and wounded little girl. Stacy Keach is good in a small part and Percy Rodriguez (the famous voice-over narrator for trailers, especially Jaws) is appropriately closed-off as the unhappy black doctor whose daughter chose to become a maid instead of going to medical school. Cicely Tyson has a plum role as the distraught daughter; she'd hit it big four years later in Sounder. This is Chuck McCann's first film and he's quite good with the difficult role of Spiro. Spiro's malady seems a more severe form of the same psychological entrapment experienced by the other characters. McCullers' worldview is neither pretty nor reassuring.
Director Robert Ellis Miller proves that one can be a consummate maker of fine film dramas and remain relatively obscure; his choice of angles and pacing benefits the drama and roots it in the small-town Southern atmosphere. James Wong Howe's naturalistic cinematography avoids heavy stylization yet finds special moods, as seen with the reflected light that comes into John Singer's room, through softly blowing curtains.
Warners' DVD of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a flawless enhanced transfer with accurate soft colors. The mono sound favors Dave Grusin's evocative score with its familiar theme. The only extra is the efficient trailer, which for once sells a 'special' movie without resorting to sensationalism. The cover image gives Sondra Locke an entirely different appearance, but is from an original poster.
I've been informed that the term 'deaf-mute' is sometimes considered an offensive word. How else can one quickly describe a person who cannot hear and does not speak?
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By Glenn Erickson