Delbert Mann/ USA/ 1955/ 90 mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 30 Apr 2018
The history of Oscar winners always raises a few eyebrows (How Green was My Valley and Crash for example). Delbert Mann’s Marty may be another, although whatever the reason it slipped from the wider public conscious, it wasn’t down to a lack of quality. This quiet, unabashedly sentimental film won the inaugural Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as Best Picture and best actor for Ernest Borgnine. The great Paddy Chayefsky also won best adapted screenplay, and while lacking the bombast and grandstanding of his most celebrated work Network, it’s a subtly deft examination of human relationships, brimming with emotional acuity.
Marty Piletti (Borgnine) is a good-hearted butcher who lives with his mother in the Bronx. Business is good, to the extent that he may take his ageing boss up on his offer and buy the shop to run himself, but his family’s main concern is his failure to marry and settle down. Marty, at 34, sees himself as unattractive and has been hiding his heartbreak at repeated rejection. One evening he strikes up a conversation with schoolteacher Clara (Betsy Blair), who has been treated cruelly by a blind date, and the pair begin to bubble with instant chemistry.
Marty is, from the off, a thoroughly likeable film. Borgnine, who became known as a quintessential character actor in the likes of The Wild Bunch and The Poseidon Adventure, is an unlikely romantic lead, as someone presenting a wall of stolid dependency, but who has inwardly turned their daily routine into a carapace against their hurt and loneliness. His ugly duckling spark with Clara is instantly sweet and moving, but threatened straight away by the defences they’ve both built around themselves. Chayefsky’s script dances across this quicksand beautifully, although a modern viewer can’t help but wince at lines like, “you’re not the dog you think you are.” Marty’s outburst at Clara when she’s reluctant to kiss him is also rather shocking today, but contextually understandable given that every male figure in his life is a textbook example of what we now call toxic masculinity.
Mann’s direction and lensing is dependable if occasionally stagey, but he manages to bring a calm sense of the steady rhythms of domesticity to his homely interiors that feels a little like a Bronx-set take on Ozu‘s Tokyo Story. Marty is not up there with that masterpiece, but there is the similar interplay between generations, of elderly regret and the frustration with their offspring that they have to stuff down lest they drive them away from the nest.
Marty is perhaps a bit twee and buttoned-up by today’s standards, but its glowing romantic heart transcends the subsequent 60 years of wiser, more cynical love stories. It set the template for ‘walk-and-talk’ relationship dramas like Richard Linklater‘s beloved Before… trilogy, and its conclusion is left beautifully open-ended. Hopefully, this crisply-restored new edition from Eureka will help a new audience discover this charming film.