I picked up this movie recently because of what Martin Sheen wrote about it in the book he co-authored with his son, Emilio Estevez, Along the Way. He was talking about the acting technique of transference he had used when playing John Dean (Watergate fame, or infamy) in the TV miniseries, Blind Ambition. He wrote that this was the same technique that Alan Arkin used in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Sheen writes:
Alan played a deaf-mute boarder in a southern rooming house whose best friend, also a deaf mute, had recently been institutionalized. Every week Alan would go visit his friend, until the week he arrived at the institution and discovered his friend had died. He goes to the cemetery and stands at the grave, where he’s so overcome with grief, all he can do is stagger around and make signs from his heart. The character’s private grief and Alan’s ability to convey it without words is a stunning moment in film. He was nominated for an Academy Award for that role.
After reading this, I felt this was a movie I had to see. Right from the beginning it was an amazing movie. Arkin’s friend (played by Chuck McCann) is out on the streets in the middle of the night. He appears to have the mind of about a 6-year-old, playing children’s games, easily distracted, and ambling around with no direction until he comes to the bakery where he throws the lid of a garbage can through the window and begins stuffing his face with food while the alarm wails. This leads to him being institutionalized, so Arkin (who plays John Singer) moves to be near his friend. He takes a room with a family where the father is in a wheelchair, the mother is bitter, and the older daughter has dreams they can’t afford: she loves music, hears it in her head, sometimes music no-one has ever heard before. Singer meets a drunk in the local restaurant where he plans to take his meals on a regular basis. The drunk injures himself, and Singer gets a black doctor (Dr. Copeland) to fixing him up, and then takes him home. Everyone Singer meets has some vulnerability, some handicap, some hurt, that he is able to reach out and turn around. Yet, he has no understanding of his own value.
I was reading a review of the book the other day that said it had no plot. I think he’s missed the point. Here is a man who does everything he can to help others, who makes a real difference in people’s lives, but doesn’t recognize it and when his friend dies, he is lost! I was totally unprepared for the ending (which I will not give away) but read the book, watch the movie, and you decide if it has a plot or not. * * * *