Judge Chris Kulik's heart is a big game hunter.
"I am a deaf-mute. I read lips and understand what is said to me. Please
do not shout."
Carson McCullers wrote her first novel at the tender age of 23, and the result was an episodic, unusual, but strikingly humane story of a deaf-mute named John Singer who moves to a small Southern town in the late 1930s. While he ingratiates himself well among the local misfits, nobody really knows about the loneliness that he has felt since his best friend (another deaf-mute) was committed to an asylum a short distance away. Many of the locals embrace Singer as a man with a strong heart who exhibits kindness everywhere he goes. Tennessee Williams praised McCullers as the "greatest prose writer that the South [has] produced," and Richard Wright applauded her ability to "rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness."
Sadly, McCullers was almost always ill throughout her life, as she dealt with numerous strokes and, eventually, the left side of her body became paralyzed. She died in 1967, just two weeks shy of the premiere of Reflections in a Golden Eye (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando), which was based on one of her books. Shortly afterward, the film adaptation of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter started filming in Alabama; it would be released one year later to high acclaim and several Oscar nominations, and now Warner has finally grabbed the film from its vaults and released it on DVD. Does the film really hold up after 40 years?
Facts of the Case
The film opens up with an overweight, deaf man named Spiros Antonapoulas (Chuck McCann, TV's Fantastic Four) who is strolling along one night and spies a bakery. After picking up a rock and smashing the window, he starts eating the sweets, but soon is picked up by the police. About the same time, his friend John Singer (Alan Arkin, Oscar winner for Little Miss Sunshine) wakes up and looks for Spiros, but is too late, as he sees Sprios being driven away in a police car. This isn't the first time that Spiros has been arrested, and it also isn't the first time that Singer has attempted to get him out of a jam. Spiros' cousin feels that he has no choice but to commit him to an asylum several hundred miles away. As a result, Singer decides to jump on a bus to move to a small town closer to the asylum, and attempt to fight for custody of his only friend.
Upon his arrival, Singer checks into a boarding house run by the Kelly family; the father is disabled but repairs watches for a living, while the mother is into sewing. The one member of the family that has a boundless spirit and energy is Mick (Sondra Locke, The Outlaw Josey Wales), a tomboyish teenager who loves music and dreams of playing the piano. Singer also befriends Blount (Stacy Keach, American History X), a drunken imbecile who causes a ruckus one night in a restaurant owned by a man named Biff Brannon. Blount smashes his head into a wall and gets knocked out, so Singer finds Dr. Copeland (Percy Rodrigues, TV's Benson), a rigid African American who has a strained relationship with his daughter Portia (Cicely Tyson, Diary of a Mad Black Woman). Singer and Blount become good friends, and the latter even manages to get a job at local amusement park and get his life in order.
Dr. Copeland doesn't trust white men in general, though he harvests a genuine respect for John Singer, and requests for his help in evaluating one of his patients, who is deaf and suffering from tuberculosis. In the meantime, Mick generates a strong crush for the deaf mute…even while she is coming to grips with her own sexuality. She begins to date a local boy, though not because she likes him equally, but because she wants "experience." However, all of these individuals who Singer befriends don't have a clue of the real reasons why Singer is there. From time to time, he goes to see Spiros, whose mental state is becoming more wildly erratic and unpredictable.
While the film version of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter sounds like it has too many characters, they are all present in McCullers' 350+ page novel, which isn't so much of a story as a slice of life of what these characters go through and their complex relationships with one another. There really isn't a primary character or main protagonist, with all of the local misfits interacting with each other through Singer who, in some ways is the common element. When I read the novel, I was struck by all the amount of social commentary and themes that McCullers employs, when one would think it would be simply about Singer's acceptance. Among other things, McCullers touches upon racism, socialism, segregation, and Marxism, while also hinting at homosexuality, pedophilia, and even (supposedly) transvestitism! So, while the novel doesn't really have a set storyline or focus, it does have exceptionally strong characterizations, with the pivotal character of Mick acting as a literary representation of McCullers herself.
My only real complaint with the book is that it has a tendency to be rambling at times, despite McCullers' beautifully simple prose. Thus, I'm sure Thomas C. Ryan (who also produced the film) was presented with a real challenge in adapting McCullers' novel to the screen. Instead of dropping a character entirely, Ryan chose to simplify everything and focus primarily on Singer and Mick. Biff Brannon, who has a strong presence in the novel (the book even ends on his lonely state), was reduced to only one scene, and Blount leaves the film 2/3 of the way through. Dr. Copeland's passion for Karl Marx has been scrapped, though his relationship with Portia and Willie (her husband) is kept intact. In fact, the subplot of Willie's run-in with the law and the consequences of it are translated almost perfectly. Mick's age has been raised a bit, and her sexual awakening was also translated to celluloid.
Despite the fact that Ryan ignored all the adult allusions and themes, he still manages to keep the spirit and—-most of all—-the heart of the narrative in cinematic check. Singer's devotion to his Spinos, as well as his loneliness and unselfish, kindly nature is all there, and Alan Arkin's rich, moving performance exemplifies that ten-fold. In fact, he received his second Oscar nomination for his role as John Singer (his first was for Norman Jewison's The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming), though he wouldn't win until 2006's Little Miss Sunshine. Arkin never says a word, though Singer's face says a thousand words no matter where he is or who he is with; there wasn't a single moment where I questioned his believability.
Along with Arkin, we have a strong supporting cast that includes Stacy Keach (Jr.) as the bumbling Blount, Cicely Tyson (in her first major film role) as the precious Portia, Percy Rodrigues (who recently passed away) as the close-minded doctor who changes attitudes soon after meeting Singer, and comic Chuck McCann who is cast against type as the sad, tragic Greek deaf mute Spiros. However, much attention was paid at the time of the film's release to 21-year-old Sondra Locke (who ended up receiving 2 Golden Globe noms and a Best Supporting Actress nod) for her role as the angelic, innocent misfit Mick. As many of you know, she later went on to become romantically involved with Clint Eastwood, and starred in six films with him. Those who are used to seeing her with Clint are advised to check out her impressive film debut here; she gives Mick just the right amount of sexual longing, adolescent confusion, and life-purpose hunting.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is directed by Robert Ellis Miller, who took over directorial duties from Joseph Strick (best known for his James Joyce adaptations) and handles the material with sensitivity. Much of the film was shot in a straightforward, but respectful manner, and two-time Oscar winner James Wong Howe's cinematography captures visually the steamy, sunny Southern atmosphere of the novel. Warner has also done a commendable job with the print on the DVD, preserving the original 1.66: 1 theatrical ratio. Occasionally, the colors seem rather washed out, but for a 40-year-old film, it looks fine. The audio is DD 2.0 mono, which is more than appropriate considering this is, by and large, a quiet film. The subtitles are provided in English, French, and Thai. Unfortunately, the only special feature is a three-minute theatrical trailer which is a disappointment, considering the fact that Miller, Locke, and Arkin could have hooked up for a commentary track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I just stated that this is, by and large, a quiet film. More often than not, it is little too quiet and never really catches fire. The novel had several emotional highpoints—-including a sequence where Mick's little brother Bubber accidentally shoots a little girl in the head with a BB gun—-and the film doesn't have the same shifting of tone. This is a minor quibble, to be sure, though I was expecting some dramatic fireworks and there just aren't any; ironically, there is a scene where Mick hosts a house party and Bubber decides to get out fireworks and light them as a joke. I don't mind the fact the fact that the humor is minimal, but the drama is restricted to a single mood, and it's really up to the actors (who do succeed) to deliver the emotion and allow the audience to feel for them.
Getting past all that, what I'm curious most about is the G rating. I understand that this film came out at the same time that the MPAA was founded, and that only four ratings were given: G, M (or PG today), R, and X. Despite the fact that much of the adult material in the novel had obliterated in the adaptation—-including casual use of the "n" word—-the "n" word is still used once, along with some other minor profanities. Plus, there is some light violence (read: fistfights), as well as the sexually suggestive undercurrent involving Mick and her relationship with her boyfriend. If this film were re-submitted for a rating, I'm positive it would receive a PG rating, because the G rating suggests that this is a "family film," which it certainly is not. In fact, I'm sure kids would be bored and not understand the film, even if there is the presence of kids in the story.
While The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is not the powerful classic it could have been, though it remains an excellent adaptation of Carson McCullers' novel, warts and all. Hopefully, Alan Arkin's recent Oscar win will draw modern day audiences to this sentimental piece with its passel of honest, rewarding performances.
The court finds Ryan's adaptation and Miller's film not guilty and free to go. As for Warner, while the film's presentation is adequate, they are given a warning about not taking the extra mile in getting another special feature or two. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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