A few months back, I was with my dad at a small Los Angeles cafe. My dad suddenly had a wide grin on his face. He recognized someone. I looked over at an older man holding his laptop. My dad said to him, “Excuse me, but are you Chuck McCann?” He smiled and replied, “I used to be.” We had a lovely twenty-minute conversation with him and afterwards I asked my dad, “Who is Chuck McCann?”
As a result of this unexpected interaction, my dad showed me a small, independent sixties film called The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. McCann has a small, but important role in the film. This was one of those times, just like with Caught, where I felt that click when you discover a forgotten film, when you’re genuinely moved and completely absorbed in the story that’s being told.
If you’re unfamiliar, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, based on the novel of the same name by Carson McCullers follows John Singer (Alan Arkin), a deaf and mute silverware engraver. He lives a pretty quiet existence. His only real friend is a mentally challenged man named Spiros (Chuck McCann). When Spiros is put in a mental institution a few towns over, Singer uproots his life and moves into a family’s home where he befriends their sixteen year-old daughter, Mick (Sondra Locke). As usual, drama ensues…but this is slightly quieter drama.
Here are just a few reasons why you need to see The Heart is a Lonely Hunter:
Alan Arkin carries this film. At the time he made this, he was just starting out, having just made the film which made him: The Russians are Coming, the Russians are coming! He was an interesting choice for the part as we usually think of Arkin in a comic and verbal context…or maybe that’s just cause I know him best from Little Miss Sunshine. Either way, Arkin delivers possibly his greatest performance without uttering one word. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work in the film, but lost to Cliff Robertson.
Sondra Locke is also a revelation in this film. At 21 years old, Locke gave Mick a vulnerability and toughness that I daresay, most actresses today don’t have. She was the perfect counterpart to Arkin. They complimented each other. Though she didn’t go on to be a movie star, she’s continued to work in the film industry as an actor and producer. Locke was also nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but lost to Ruth Gordon.
Chuck McCann’s screen time may be a short, but he certainly makes his mark in the film. He was known for most of his career as a comic actor, but this film showcases his dramatic range. He is also famous for having a relationship with Stan Laurel. He apparently just found his number in the phone book and called him up. Fascinating…
Percy Rodrigues, Cicely Tyson, and Stacy Keach also give great supporting performances.
I had not read McCullers book when I saw the film, but feel compelled now to do so. Similarly to To Kill a Mockingbird, McCullers book discusses the South as well as racism and other social issues. To me, the film is ultimately about what it feels like to be lonely. It’s less about the plot and more how these significantly different people deal with their loneliness.
In this way, the film reminds me of Netflix’s recent adaptation of the YA bestseller 13 Reasons Why. Everything Arkin’s Singer does is to bring people closer together. Even though ultimately, he’ll never feel that closeness with the people around him, he tries to help people where he can, even when he’s met with derision and anger. In 13 Reasons Why, the real message to take away is that our actions matter, both in positive and negative ways. We never know what anguish and pain the people around us are going through, but in our small way, we can do our part to make their lives a little brighter.
In true indie style, you’ve probably never heard of the director of this film. I hadn’t. His name was Robert Ellis Miller and he actually passed away in January of this year. He directed the film very much like a play. He let moments play out organically. You never felt like you were being manipulated. It all felt genuine and real.
I think it’s amazing that Carson McCullers got this published at the age of 22. Her life was filled with pain. She attempted suicide, but was not successful. Carson had a tumultuous childhood and a rough adulthood, which was cut short when she died of a brain hemorrhage, just before filming began for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
As such, I think there’s a melancholy nature to all her works, but especially this novel. She took her pain and turned it into something meaningful, art that serves as a reminder that we all experience loneliness and that feeling that way is part of the human experience.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a poignant portrait of what it’s like to feel lonely.
It’s completely forgotten, but I don’t find its themes any less relevant than those expressed in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. We all get lonely to different degrees and we truly can all do our part to reach out and connect with the people around us. In this strange age we’re in, I think this film’s message is of the utmost importance.
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