Delbert Mann, Director
Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and that should be a time when we consider the delight that men and women take in one another, and rightly so. But if you asked a young person to sing his or her favorite love song, would you get any answer at all?
Something has happened to love, and that’s why we’re recommending this film, Marty, as one of Hollywood’s most bittersweet and incisive looks at the matter — but a look that is also founded in hope and truth.
Imagine a burly and hard-favored butcher, Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine), who has been pestered into going to a dance hall, once again, to have his heart broken, once again. His mother (Esther Minciotti) had been nagging him about why he’s still a bachelor, and though Marty is usually mild-tempered, putting up with a lot and taking it with a smile or a sad shrug, he broke down: “Ma, sooner or later, there comes a point in a man's life when he's gotta face some facts. And one fact I got a face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain't got it.” He wants to be left alone. But there he is at the dance hall, anyway, and so is a young schoolteacher named Clara (Betsy Blair), who is also lonely. Worse than that: her blind date has offered Marty some money to take her off his hands, because he’s run into a woman he likes better, or rather a woman who holds out more hope for him to get some pleasure out of the night. A gum-chewing medical student, he is; a real loser. Marty rejects the offer indignantly. But he does approach Clara, when he sees her quietly weeping, sitting alone. And they dance. “See, dogs like us, we ain’t such dogs as we think we are,” he says, and she smiles to herself. “You’re a good, kind man,” she will tell him later on, when they have coffee at a diner. She can see beneath the somewhat rough exterior.
What a relief it is from the disappointments of our way of life! One of the most moving scenes in this excellent film — the Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for 1955 — was just when Marty, persuaded against his better judgment, tries to call up a girl he met a month before with her girl friend and his buddy Angie (the weaselly Joe Mantell), and we hear only his side of the conversation, as he tries, gently, hoping against hope, to remind her of who he is, and to ask her on a date, and it is clear that the girl on the other end is lying to him, saying that she can’t go anywhere this week, or the next week, or the week after that. But later in the film, when Marty is on top of the world with hope and love, it’s Angie and his buddies who rain on the parade — Angie treats Clara with remarkable rudeness, and Marty’s friend Ralph, that very night, on the streets of New York, presses him to dump Clara and hop in the car with him and a couple of nurses. “Nurses, Marty!” says Ralph.
The sexual revolution was about to burst on the western world, but in Marty we see it as having arrived already, without the older generation being quite aware of it, and it has already brought with it the loneliness, the confusion, the mutual distrust of the sexes, and the spiritual exhaustion we will find in movies twenty years later — things we take for granted now. But though Marty is an honest film, it is also a celebration of genuine goodness, and it is never merely ironic, never flippant, never gray. Marty is a good man, better than even his closest friends know, better than his mother and his brother know, and Clara is a lovely and gentle woman whose beauty escapes the shallow men around her. This is a film to watch again and again; Paddy Chayefsky’s script is flawless, and the direction and the acting are flawless too. Ernest Borgnine was built to be the bad guy (see him as the sadistic sergeant in From Here to Eternity), but he was a brilliant actor with a range as broad as anyone’s — as you will see here.
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