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Isolation

March 8, 2010

by John Farr

Three films on loneliness and isolation.


Umberto D. (1952)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

An aging pensioner struggling to make ends meet in inflationary post-war Italy, Umberto D. (Carlo Battisti) is a despairing man who faces an uncertain future. Receiving threats of eviction from his cold, uncaring landlady and desperately seeking to raise the needed money to no avail, he can only rely on his one remaining friend, a small dog named Flike.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Portraying the plight of the elderly dispossessed in an acknowledged masterpiece of the neorealist style, De Sica’s “Umberto D.” may surpass his own “Bicycle Thief” for heartbreaking poignancy. What in less skillful hands could have been treacly melodrama becomes instead a wrenchingly honest tale about a forgotten human being searching in vain for some shred of human kindness. Half a century later, “Umberto D.” remains a monumental achievement of simple, eloquent storytelling.


The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Left on his own when a close friend is institutionalized, deaf-mute John Singer (Alan Arkin) moves to a small town in the Deep South, where he soon befriends a troubled adolescent girl, Mick (Locke), and a colorful cast of misfits, including an alcoholic ne’er-do-well (Stacy Keach) and an embittered black doctor (Percy Rodriguez). Spilling their secrets to the equable Singer, the townsfolk take for granted this saintly mute’s presence in their lives-until it’s too late.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Based on Carson McCullers’s bittersweet novel, and gorgeously lensed by famed cinematographer James Wong Howe, Miller’s “Hunter” is the affecting tale of a man who enriches the lives of everyone around him without (quite literally) asking for anything in return. The interactions between Oscar nominees Arkin and Locke (just 20 at the time) are particularly touching (they bond over classical music), but the film is also notable for fine early performances by Keach and Cicely Tyson, playing Rodriguez’s estranged daughter. Delicately grappling with poverty and all forms of intolerance, this “Hunter” has got a lot of heart.


Taxi Driver (1976)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Vietnam vet turned Manhattan cabbie, is an angry, forgotten man, and he’s about to break. His work takes him into the cesspool of the city, in contact with various lowlifes, including a pimp named Sport (Keitel), who protects child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), whom Travis befriends. He then takes one last stab at a better life, courting lovely campaign aide Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). But it’s soon clear he doesn’t belong in her world, and Bickle’s final disintegration is at hand.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Scorsese’s dark vision of human alienation in an urban wasteland captures the seaminess of pre-Giuliani Manhattan, and De Niro’s career-making performance as Bickle is haunting, recalling those real-life outcasts who have used violent crime to tell an oblivious world: “I was here!”. Stunningly directed and acted, this picture is every bit as disturbing now as when released.Brilliant, but not for the faint of heart.


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  • comments (0)
  • Nikki

    Top of my list is “Great Expectations” with the lonely and angry Miss Havisham. After that I’d list “Portrait of Jennie” with the melancholy Joseph Cotton; and finally, “Marty” with Ernest Borgnine’s perfect performance of a lonely man, and one of the most quoted film lines ever, “I don’t know, Marty. What do you want to do?”

  • rayban

    The final word in films that depict wrenchingly the main character’s isolation is probably Roman Polanski’s horror film, “Repulsion” with Catherine Deneuve.

  • Gina Churton

    Oh god, Umberto D. is incredible. One of my all time favorites – I’m so glad John listed this one, as I haven’t found many discussions on it. Sometimes I feel like I can really related to Umberto in that film. There is something about the comfort of a dog that surpasses any other type of affection, human or otherwise.

    Is that really sad?

  • roy12560

    Good choices of “Taxi Driver and “Repulsion” have already been claimed. So I can take credit for naming “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) the ultimate tale of urban isolation, lust, and loneliness, starring unforgettably Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.
    Hollywood certainly no longer has the guts to make risky, provocative great films like the three above. They just don’t make great films like those anymore. All we get today are mostly computer- generated special effects extravaganzas, approved for popular audiences by committee, in place of a good human story.
    Nonetheless, another good film worth noting is Joel Schumacher’s “Falling Down” from 1993. Especially timely now, Michael Douglas plays a laid off blue collar worker violently cracking from the isolation and low-esteem of unemployment. The film also contains a great performance from Robert Duvall as a police detective sympathetic to Douglas’ plight.

  • Nikki

    Thanks for listing “Falling Down.” Great movie!

  • rayban

    Roy, if we see anything like “Taxi Driver” or “Midnight Cowboy” today, it’ll probably come by way of independent cinema.