Alan Arkin is perhaps best remembered for the roles he played already in serious, late roles. One such role, namely the role of the legendary grandfather in “Little Miss Sunshine”, brought him the only Oscar for a supporting role, but in the sixties he had two nominations for the Oscar, in the category of the best leading actor. One of these nominations is for the role in the drama that Robert Ellis Miller filmed based on the novel of the same name by the famous American writer Carson McCullers. And while the action of the novel published in 1940 takes place in the depressed American South of the thirties, screenwriter Thomas C. Ryan transferred the story to the present, that is, to the American South of the sixties.
John Singer (Arkin) is a deaf and mute engraver who lives in a small town in the south, and his only friend is his mentally handicapped and dumb chubby friend Spiros, who keeps getting into trouble. After Spiros ends up in an institution for the mentally retarded, John decides to move to a town near Spiros’s institution. He will be renting a room in the Kelly family’s house, which has fallen into financial trouble after the family’s father was injured on the job, so every dollar will come in handy. And they will place Kelly John in the room of the rebellious teenage daughter Margaret (Sondra Locke), who is not very happy about it. However, a lonely teenage girl and an even lonelier deaf-mute thirty-something man will eventually start to connect and become friends, and a more platonic than real relationship will develop between them.
In the meantime, John will find company there in the local drunk and wanderer Jake (Stacey Keach) and an African-American doctor who helps the poor, and John will start working for him as a translator for deaf and mute patients. “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is not one of those films from the second half of the sixties that has managed to age as well as some of its peers. Although it tries to stick to realism, it doesn’t seem all that convincing, and the best way to describe this film is as a somewhat fragmentary melodrama about the fates of unfortunate people trying to find their way in a world that doesn’t seem to be intended for them. Nevertheless, this film managed to reach two Oscar nominations, and in addition to Arkin, Clint Eastwood’s later longtime partner Sondra Locke (Bronco Billy, The Outlaw Josey Wales) was also nominated. It was her first role in her career, and thanks to her youthful appearance, she managed to get through as a 16-year-old, even though she was already in her mid-twenties at the time.